When Worlds Collide

Year: 1951
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Rudolph Maté
Writer: Edward Balmer/Sydney Boehm/Philip Wylie
Of course the effects and production design of the day constrained this film. Today there'd be graphic, orgiastic CGI scenes of the two planets colliding - and indeed there probably will be when the Stephen The Mummy Sommers 2010 remake hits (no guarantee yet that he won't tit up the rest). But in 1951, the extent of the sort of scenes we'll see in any remake in the digital effects age is the matte painting of a flooded New York, a ship lying on its side nearby.

Astronomers discover a twin planet system on a collision course for the Earth, Bellus and Zyra. Zyra will pass near enough to Earth to cause massive upheaval of the tides and crust, raining Biblical destruction over the planet. Bellus will hit Earth only a few days later, destroying it completely.

As the hero, Randall doesn't have a lot to do with the story except for the 50s Hollywood need for a handsome, square-jawed type to win the day. Early on, eggheads and politicians accomplish most of the exposition as they argue trying to establish who's right as Dr Hendron takes his case to the world's leaders. Ridiculed and cast out, he hatches a plan to save what remnants of humanity he can - build a rocket ship powerful enough to take a random sample of forty people to the new world, Zyra, so the species survives.

As doom descends, the race is on to mobilise enough people for such a huge engineering project, many of whom know they have no hope of surviving the coming catastrophe. The characters - far from caricatures - are nevertheless a really well-drawn cross section of society, especially the rich, enfeebled industrialist trying to buy his deliverance.

The technical details insofar as filmmaking technology of 1951 could manage them are surprisingly accurate and informed. It would take almost every pound of fuel to move such a massive vehicle out of Earth's gravitational pull, and the latter stages when those in charge debate about what can travel down to the last kilogram perfectly capture the challenges of any manned space flight.

As a review I read online said, this film is about the best and worst of humanity, and the themes are lofty. The obvious one is to ask how humanity reacts to news of its impending demise and the struggle between self-preservation and the collective good. That thousands of people can band together when they know all but a small number of them will die is everything about ourselves that we love. That those who are going to be left behind abandon the responsibilities they accepted and revolt in order to make sure they - at the expense of someone else - get out alive is everything about us that reminds us of our self-interested, animal nature.

There are huge questions of theoretical ethics at stake. Just how do you recruit so many people in an effort that will ensure the survival of only a small few of them? Would apathy or hope win out?

These are just some of the themes that could make a premise like When Worlds Collide one of the sharpest vehicles to deconstruct human nature, but I suspect a Hollywood remake will focus on a quasi-romantic hero/heroine relationship and lots of big explosions and waves hitting cities. It's a shame, but in a way this material is almost more suited to a book so it can explore such deep themes.

The effects do leave a lot to be desired, and When Worlds Collide might well have been made 50 years too early. To live up to the title it needs a very broad canvas with lots of Roland Emmerich-style money shots. It's somewhat disappointing that the only real sci-fi effects are the obvious miniature of the rocket's launch field and the matte painting mentioned before. The lack of big wide shots makes it a little claustrophobic, the same way George Lucas felt about The Empire Strikes Back before retooling windows in the corridors of Bespin to show the activity outside.

There's also a similar anthro-religious theme many sci-fi movies like War of the Worlds had at the time, the Christ-like (but cheap, rushed to print by Paramount against the producer's wishes) dawning image and 'new world' text having a distinctly Biblical tone. But for ideas, science and drama, it's a timeless masterpiece.

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