When Worlds Collide (USA 1951)

when-worlds-collide-1951-13Give your inner child a chance to enjoy this. It’s about an attempt to save a remnant of humanity from oblivion by whisking them off in an untried rocket ship to a new planet. This is a moving film, profound and well-deserving of classic status among other 50s genre masterpieces such as “Forbidden Planet.” I even like the Biblical passages – which predictably offends many! This is filled with images that still resonate over 60 years later.

Astronomers have determined that Bellus, a star a dozen times larger than our own, is hurtling through the cosmos directly at earth. Circling Bellus is a new planet, Zyra. This planet will sweep past Earth bringing cataclysmic disaster. Then Bellus, days later, will obliterate Earth. A small group of scientists plan to build a space ship that will leave Earth just before Bellus hits and travel to Zyra, which, it is calculated, will be captured by the sun’s gravitational pull and settle in to an orbit similar to what Earth’s was. The rocket will only be able to take 44 men and women, plus a selection of animals and plants. Humanity’s skills, dedication, selflessness…and ruthless desperation…will be tested to the full.

Among the people we’ll get to know are Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating), a wise scientist who heads the project and who sounds like an avuncular radio announcer. Then there’s his daughter, Joyce (a radiant Barbara Rush), conflicted by her love for two men and evidently a recent graduate of the Ann Blythe School of Self-Consciously Gracious Acting. Dave Randall (Richard Derr), pilot, adventurer and a man who discovers he loves Joyce. Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), a man who also loves Joyce yet must make a decision only he can make. And best of all, Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), an immensely rich businessman, confined to a wheelchair, whose idea of humanity would make a pride of lions at feeding time look like pussycats. He will fund the project if he gets a seat on the ship.

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He also brings rifles along to the building site. “Your salvation doesn’t interest me; mine does,” he snarls at Dr. Hendron. When Worlds Collide offers up two great pleasures. First, the story hums along. Except for a lull in the middle when we have to deal with the Joyce-Dave-Tony triangle, there are no slow or dull spots. Granted, building a rocket ship in the mountains may not seem exciting, but the movie establishes the rush to get it done before Bellus hits. We also get to deal with the disasters that occur when Zyra speeds by. Rudolf Mate, the director, keeps his foot on the accelerator. The second and best pleasure comes from the model work of George Pal. With no computers to make improbable disasters mundane, Pal gives us meticulous handmade models and special photography that wows us.

Just the work on the huge rocket ship, poised at the top of a ramp that sweeps down into a valley and then up the side of a mountain, is enormously satisfying. Pal and his memorable models give us everything we could hope for: exploding volcanoes with white-hot lava moving right towards us, oceans roaring across the land, buildings crushed, Manhattan seriously awash, a dramatic send-off of the rocket ship, and a hopeful look at humanity’s new planet, combining snow, green- carpeted hills and some unusually tall and weird flowers. Sure, the acting and the actors are all B-movie quality. The brief angst of the three-way romance is small stuff by today’s Jen-Brad-Angie standards. The optimistic science is sketchy at best. The film now seems more than a little naive. Well, so what? It moves quickly, looks great and it sure beats crouching under your desk waiting to be incinerated.

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