George Pal, the producer of Destination Moon, The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, had one of his greatest triumphs with this tale of how the best and worst in humanity emerges when the world is coming to an end. The gifted sci-fi artist Chesley Bonestell designed the spaceship seen in this scene card.David Randall is a carefree ladies man and skilled pilot who finds he has been let in on the greatest and most terrible secret in the world when he is paid to deliver some mysterious pictures from one eminent astronomer to another. The recipient, Dr. Hendron, confirms the awful findings of the sender: the planet Zyra will collide with Earth and wipe out all of humanity. Despite widespread disbelief, two philanthropists give Dr. Hendron some of the money he needs to build a rocket ship that will, at least theoretically, take them to Zyra, which may or may not be habitable for humans. The rest of the money comes from Sydney Stanton, a wheelchair-bound old man, who insists he come along, despite the severe limitations on the number of passengers and amount of cargo. Meanwhile, as doomsday approaches, Randall is surprised to find himself in a love triangle with Dr. Hendron’s daughter and her fiancé. Humanity is in peril, and only a modern-day Noah’s ark, and the continued need of a man.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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