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Monday, September 24, 2007

When Worlds Collide

This is one of the block-buster classics of early sci-fi movies. It's theme was so potent that offshoots have been remade in several other movies. When Worlds Collide (WWC for short) was a big budget film, shot in color, with a large cast, and fairly expensive sets, models and special effects (for its day). WWC usually makes classic sci-fi fans' top ten lists. Never mind petty quibbles over the science cited in the movie. The science is just there to support the premise. What if the earth was about to be destroyed? What would mankind do? With the usual romance elements and human drama, that question is explored.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A rogue star and its planet are hurtling on a collision course with the earth. The planet, Zyra, will come close to the earth, causing massive floods (ala Noah) and earthquakes, but it is the rogue star itself -- Bellus -- which will plow through the earth, burning it up. By the time astronomers discover Bellus and Zyra, the earth has less than a year left. Governments are paralyzed. A rich, selfish, wheelchair-bound billionaire agrees to finance the building of a rocket ship on the condition that HE gets to come. Hundreds of people build the ark with a sense of hope. It is a race against time. As the end nears, human drama complicates things. Only 44 people, chosen by lottery, will be able to go. A pair of young lovers is split up by the lottery. The billionaire's aide tries to steal the young lover's ticket, but is shot by the billionaire. As the end nears, chaos breaks out. All the lottery losers want aboard anyhow, but it's too late. The space ark takes off just in time, but leaving the selfish billionaire behind. Alas. Bellus destroys the earth. The space ark lands, albeit roughly, to find Zyra strange, but very earth-like. The remnant of mankind escaped the destruction of the old earth, to begin anew on a new world.

Why is this movie fun?
It's interesting that WWC used the same rogue planet plot device as Man From Planet X, which opened about 4 months earlier. This time, however, it was a collision course. In fact, the roles are reverse from Planet X. This time, it's the earthlings who are trying to escape their doomed world to another. The theme of WWC is thought provoking.

The acting is pretty good, even if some of the roles are fairly stereotypic. The rocket itself is a cool looking example of what 1950s thinking imagined rocket ships would be like. It's this fascination with sleek rockets that would lead the culture to tail fin mania in the latter 50s. The takeoff of the rocket-ark is made all the more dramatic by having it gain speed racing down a track, then up a ramp (rather like the V1s in WW2). A conventional vertical blast off would have been too slow for the urgent mood.

Cold War Angle
The threat of world destruction has been up-scaled for effect. The name of the rogue star, Bellus, reminded me of the Latin word for War: Bellum. "War" was coming and would totally wipe out the earth. Where many films imagine some survivors of a global nuclear war (see review of "Five"), WWC posits an inescapable total destruction of the earth. Yet, WWC looks at both the hopeful and the gloomy. The space ark represents the hopeful glass-half-full. The earth's anarchy and violence which they leave behind represents the pessimistic glass-half-empty view.

Based on the Book -- WWC was based on the 1933 novel by Edwin Balmer and Phillip Wylie. The plot of the movie follows that of the book generally, with many of the usual book-through-hollywood caveats. In the book, it's two planets, not a star and a planet. The two planets are named Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta. While the movie makes only one mention of other rockets leaving earth, (yet only shows one) the book is more clear that several space arks left earth.

Noah In Space -- George Pal (the producer of WWC) is known for including fairly overt Christian messages into his productions. WWC is no exception. The movie opens with a shot of an ornate Bible, opening to a couple verses from Genesis -- the part where God is so disgusted with the corruption and violence of the earth that he decides to wipe it all out, (except for Noah, etc.). Pal is making a pretty strong social commentary right off the bat. The whole story line is a modern adaptation of the Noah's Ark account, right down to the animals, two-by-two. The ruthlessness and violence that break out on earth as the rocket-ark is about to take off, stand as a vindication that the "old" mankind was indeed corrupt and violent and deserved to be wiped out. You don't find yourself feeling too sorry for those being left behind. Certainly no tears were shed for rich Mr. Stanton.

Pre-Owned Home? -- Another fascinating part, which seems to get little comment, is when they get to Zyra, and disembark their ark, on the far left side of the Zyran landscape (painting) is some very man-made looking cuts in that cliff. Ahead of them are clearly two pyramids. Nothing is said of them. In the novels ("When Worlds Collide" ('33) and "After Worlds Collide" ('34)), the new planet was inhabited, but the advanced race had died out as "Zyra" coursed through cold, deep space. A movie sequel to WWC was planned, but George Pal fell on hard times, and the project was scrapped.

Pre-PC -- A feature of WWC which would be much more apparent today than in 1951, was that the space ark carried only white people. A half-century after the making of the film, even cereal box art is careful to show a politically-correct mix of white / black / asian / latino cartoon children frolicking behind the giant cereal bowl. Were the makers of WWC being subconsciously racist? That is (and has been) debated. A minor note on that, is that in the novel, many space arks are built in different countries. Many of them make it to the new planet. In WWC, about a half hour into the runtime, Dr. Fry says that other ships are being built too. WWC is the story of that one particular ship, which happened to end up with a crew (cargo?) drawn from only the all-white labor force at the shipyard.

Tough Lot -- A sort of subtext to WWC is triumph of egalitarianism over elitism. When the time came to go, only 44 people, out of the hundreds, could go. Surely everyone working on the ship had to realize this. It was built with only 44 seats. Those would be filled by a ruthlessly fair lottery. 22 men, 22 women. They weren't chosen for their skills, or their breeding proclivities or genetic makeup. They were chosen by simple lot.

Bottom line? WWC is a great sci-fi classic. It strives to explore big ideas with little wallowing to petty drama (unlike many in the B-grade films). It is a must-see of classic sci-fi.


Blaze said...

The one flaw I can't get over is the wonderful land of Zyra. If Bellus and Zyra's gravity are wreaking havoc on Earth, then Earth's gravity must be doing likewise to Zyra. Yet, our intrepid refugees land in an exotic garden of tranquility.

Nightowl said...

Hi Blaze,

That's a very good point. Even if things had settled down on Zyra after Bellus took out Earth, you might expect to see a bit of left-over clutter or damage.

Still, for the mythos of the tale, Zyra was The Promised Land, The Elysian Fields, etc. Kinda needed to be idyllic. Mythos sometimes trumps logic.

Brian Bartlett said...

I love this movie, the stories of how "the end" affects each person seems realistic. the special effects are not bad and the models are neat.

luobikis said...

Absolutely love this movie. Another bit of trivia that is not mentioned, is in Star Trek II the Wrath of Kahn two cargo containers can be seen labeled "Bellus" and "Zyra" in the Genesis cave.

Nightowl said...

Thanks for the trivia, Luobikis. I hadn't noticed that in Wrath of Kahn. I'll have to watch it again. :-)

PR001 said...

Just a note - WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE was based off a novel of the same name and the central plot was about the Earth being destroyed by another planet - it did lift THE MAN FROM PLANET X's story (it might actually be the other way around).

There was a follow up book titled AFTER WORLDS COLLIDE which continues on the new world (hence you see at the end the shummering image of a city in the distance - aliens built them for the humans as a way of apologizing for their world destroying the Earth).

One of my all time favorite movies as well - hope it hits Blu-Ray.

Anonymous said...

When Worlds Colide is based on a book - and there is a sequel, aptly named "After Worlds Collide". In After, several ships make it Zyra - a Chinese ship, a German ship and a couple of others. And old Earth hostilities resume - as the books were written in the 1930s.

Also, note in WWC that ALL of the passengers in the Ark are Caucasian. I think there have been several attempts at getting a remake made

Luobikis said...

Anonymous November 11, 2011. Your right about the remake. The word is that Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, GI Joe, Van Helsing) is directing.

Ron Miller said...

One of the most disappointing shots in the film is the final one, where the hero and his girlfriend descend the ramp into a Fantasia-like sunset. The background is only a sketch for a matte painting by Cheley Bonestell...budget constraints forced the use of the sketch instead of a more finished painting. (By the way, Bonestell did not do the rather amateurish-looking matte shoy of flooded NY seen from the air.)