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When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide

By Simon Powell • June 5th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 2/5
Paramount Pictures

Original release: August 17th, 1951
Running time: 83 minutes

Director: Rudolph Maté
Writers: Sydney Boehm, Edwin Balmer, Philip Wylie
Composer: Leith Stevens

Cast: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt

When Worlds Collide

Released in the same year that the Hydrogen Bomb was unveiled, When Worlds Collide harks back to an age when science finally found a potential way to realise the fiery apocalyptic visions that had long been a part of Christian mythology. Unfortunately, while the story may move at a breakneck pace, the script gets weighed down with turgid melodrama and flat characterisation, while the special effects look cheap and unconvincing.

A group of scientists find that Earth has just eight months until obliteration by a stray star called Bellus. There’s no hope for the planet, but there may be a chance for humanity to survive, by building a rocket ship to fly to a planet orbiting the star. Dr Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) assembles a team that includes his daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), her fiancé Dr Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), and pilot David Randall (Richard Derr). However, with the clock ticking, the world’s governments refusing to help, and the technology untested, will mankind’s only hope make it to the new world?

Compared to other George Pal films such as Destination Moon, and War Of The Worlds, the effects are disappointing, with some rather obvious miniatures and enough stock footage to make me think the budget wasn’t exactly huge. The low point is the finale, where the survivors take their first steps onto their brave new world, a matte painting so cheap and badly drawn it looks like they are stepping out Song of the South style into a Disney cartoon.

The science of the film is way off (Earth would have been destroyed from the heat long before being hit by a star), but to linger on this is unfair, as it is, after all a film of Science FICTION. The science is just a McGuffin to establish the stakes of inevitable total annihilation, and set a timeframe to emphasise the urgency.

When Worlds Collide

The real problem lies with the dull, two-dimensional characters, and their, at times, odd behaviour. The love triangle between Joyce, her dashing doctor fiancé and David Randall, never rises above mawkish soap opera, and sometimes feels as though it’s as important to the characters as the impending destruction of the planet. There are also some questionable lapses in morality, in particular from Dr Hendron, who fixes the lottery for the 40 places on the ship so that not only his daughter and future son-in-law can get on board, but also a little orphan boy and a puppy dog. Weirder still, not one person raises any objections.

In fact, right up until the final moments, everyone’s unbelievably civilised – and nobody ever stops to question the true horror of the complete destruction of billions of people and thousands of years of progress, culture and civilisation. Only once does a character allow their mask to slip, when we see David Randall in a nightclub looking When Worlds Collideat a dollar bill, and, realising that he cannot take it with him, decides to light a cigarette with it. It’s a small subtle gesture, but one that shows he realises that every aspect of life that people know is about to be changed forever.

The only character to make any kind of impact is wheel-chair bound misanthropic millionaire Sydney Stanton who bankrolls the whole escape project. However, this isn’t done out of altruism – he’s buying a seat on the only ride to survival. He’s a selfish man with nothing but contempt for anyone but himself, and although the character rarely rises above pantomime villain, at least he provokes some sort of emotional reaction from the viewer, unlike the bland, emotionally repressed good guys.

Although made at the start of the Cold War, when Duck and Cover films and the Rise of the Eastern Bloc would’ve been on people’s minds, When Worlds Collide doesn’t have the political symbolism of other 1950s Sci-Fi Films such as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, or Red Planet Mars. The real underlying theme is the mix of science and religion but we get muddled messages about this. In case you haven’t picked up the parallels with the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood, it’s repeatedly pointed out to you in a rather heavy-handed fashion. There’s a quote from The Book of Genesis in the opening scene, a craft is built from scratch to take the chosen few to safety, and the livestock the refugees take with them are led in to the ship two by two. Meanwhile, a stern voice-over tells us that people are flocking back to church as the end approaches. However, this groundswell of faith doesn’t do any of them any good, and it’s only science that provides any hope of escape and survival.

When Worlds Collide

Simon Powell

Simon Powell

Simon grew up on a steady diet of James Bond and Ray Harryhausen films, but has been fascinated with the horror genre since a clandestine viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager. Since then his tastes have expanded to take in classic horror from the Universal and Hammer Studios, as well as branching out into Video Nasties, Sci-Fi, Silent Comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen.

Apart from getting married, one of his fondest memories is buying a beer each for both Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse at a film festival, and listening to their equally fascinating stories of life at totally different levels of the industry.

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