When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide
Director: Rudolph Maté
Screenplay: Sidney Boehm (based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie)
Stars: Richard Derr (David Randall), Barbara Rush (Joyce Hendron), Peter Hanson (Dr. Tony Drake), John Hoyt (Sydney Stanton), Larry Keating (Dr. Cole Hendron), Judith Ames (Julie Cummings), Stephen Chase (Dean George Frye), Frank Cady (Harold Ferris), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Emery Bronson), Sandro Giglio (Dr. Ottinger)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1951
Country: USA
When Worlds Collide DVD Cover

As Kim Newman points out in Apocalypse Movies, his encyclopedic study of end-of-the-world cinema, movies about the planet Earth being threatened from the heavens by rogue planets and giant chucks of space rock are nearly as old as the cinema itself. They began with 1910's The Comet and 1916's The Comet's Comeback, which were early attempts at creating synergy by riding the much-publicized wave of panic and awe that came with the passing of Halley's comet.

The first large-scale, major-studio take on the subject was 1951's doomsday epic When Worlds Collide, which was produced by George Pal (Destination Moon, The War of the Worlds). When Worlds Collide doesn't pull any punches, immediately announcing its grandiosity by quoting from the Book of Genesis about God's destruction of the sinful with a great flood. Rather than watery destruction, here we have fiery destruction in the form of a renegade sun and its orbiting planet that are on a sudden collision course with Earth.

The pending end of the world is discovered by several scientists who take their findings to the United Nations, only to find that they are scorned and ridiculed as doomsayers trying to cash in on publicity. Undaunted, they enlist the aid of wealthy industrialists who have enough money to invest in a modern-day Noah's ark, a rocket ship that will take a select number of people (just 40, in fact, along with some animals) off the Earth's surface and attempt to land on the runaway planet that will just miss the Earth before the sun hits. Of course, this being 1951, it was still six years before a satellite would be put in orbit and more than a decade before humans would launch into space. Thus, the whole idea of launching to another planet is, in the movie's terms, simply "theory."

Based on a 1933 novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie and adapted by Sidney Boehm, When Worlds Collide looks fairly hokey today, but beneath its dated Technicolor surface is an urge (however constrained) to truly explore human response to the end of the world. With eight months in the balance before Earth is decimated, the narrative focuses on a relatively small group of people involved with the building of the rocket ship. At first, it appears that the movie is going to take a generally positive slant by showing people working together for the salvation of just enough that the human race can be preserved on another planet. But, once the clock starts ticking down on the final day, those who are being left behind rise up in revolt, suddenly wondering why it is them who are going to die.

When Worlds Collide was celebrated for its innovative special effects, winning an Academy Award that year for the effects work by Gordon Jennings, who won again a year later for The War of the Worlds (1953). The movie features not only the rocket ship with its long, roller-coaster-like launch track that goes up the side of a mountain, but a fairly extensive sequence of destruction when the rogue planet passes Earth's atmosphere, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves that swamp New York City. Viewed today, these effects are certainly less effective, their origins as detailed models and painted backdrops all too obvious, especially the grand finale that finds the humans on a paradisiacal planet presented as a truly awful matte painting. Yet, there is real spark of creativity and visual ingenuity in the primitive effects, and it's not hard to see why audiences were wowed by their scope and grandeur.

The central players are mostly stock characters, and the screenplay unwisely structures much of the drama around a melodramatic love triangle that never generates any real heat. One of the more interesting characters is Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), a wheelchair-bound millionaire who funds much of the rocket construction out of purely selfish motives. The movie never allows him even a hint of redemption, and it is of little surprise that he is left behind in the end. Director Rudolph Maté, who worked as a cinematographer for such cinematic luminaries as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock before moving into the director's chair, shows a limited ability to deal with complex human relationships, but a grandiose sense of spectacle and color.

Viewed a half-century later, the movie's ideological core is a bit questionable, representative as it is of '50s American culture. It's a bit unnerving, for instance, that the salvation of the human race conveniently includes the de facto removal of any possibilities of racial tensions on the new planet by ensuring that everyone deemed worthy of salvation in the rocket ship happens to be white.

But, even when When Worlds Collide doesn't play well politically or socially five decades after it played the silver screens, it's still a fun, sometimes cheesy descent into apocalyptic nonsense. The science part of the science fiction is particularly inane (if a giant sun is approaching the Earth, how come it never gets any hotter?), but much of it still plays surprisingly well, although the most pleasurable way to watch it may be from a vantage point of ironic detachment, as past earnestness often makes for the best camp.

When Worlds Collide DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish, French
SupplementsOriginal theatrical trailer
Distributor Paramount Pictures
Release DateSeptember 18, 2001

The digital transfer of When Worlds Collide, presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, looks good, but not great. As a film that is over 50 years in age, it is not surprising that grain is evident in the darker sequences and there are quite a few white specks here and there. However, the image looks excessively soft, especially in long shots where the edges around objects and characters look almost fuzzy. The deeply saturated Technicolor doesn't appear to have faded at all over the years, as it retains its original richness and luminosity.

The Dolby 1.0 monaural soundtrack is clear of any distracting distortion or background hiss. The sound range and fidelity are understandably limited, especially in terms of the depth and resonance of the sound effects, which tends to reduce the impact of the large-scale destruction scenes. Still, dialogue is always clear and audible and the musical score sounds good.

The only included supplement is the film's original theatrical trailer.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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