Wednesday, July 30, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: When Worlds Collide (1951)

Even back in 1951, I suppose studio marketers knew how to sell expensive blockbuster movies. "The greatest shock of all time is...when worlds collide!" shouted the theatrical trailer for this classic science fiction disaster flick.

"This may not happen for a million years," suggested another enthusiastic tag-line, "but now you'll see what could happen...when worlds collide!"

The end of all life on Earth never looked so exciting. Pass the popcorn...

Based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, this George Pal production (adapted by Sydney Boehm) of When Worlds Collide opens with a tight zoom-in on a copy of The Holy Bible itself. A page flips open (apparently of its own volition...) and we see this anxiety-provoking Scriptural quote: "And God looked upon the Earth and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth..."

This foreboding excerpt, which leads up to the passage about Noah and the Great Flood, is the core underpinning of this early genre disaster film, since the central narrative involves desperate scientists constructing a "Noah's Ark" rocket ship that can save forty-four human beings before worlds collide.

The story proper begins when a scientist working at a South African observatory, Dr. Hendron (Larry Keating), determines that two space bodies are approaching Earth quite quickly and will wreak total and utter havoc in the solar system. The first body, a planet called Zyra, will cause massive earthquakes, 100 ft. tidal waves and other disasters (which necessitates a major evacuation of coastal cities the globe over). But the second-part of the one-two punch is even worse: the heavenly body called Bellus will actually collide with our mother planet, totally obliterating it.

As Dr. Hendron puts it, "If my calculations prove to be correct, this could be the most frightening discovery of all time!"

Unluckily for mankind, Hendron's calculations do prove correct, and he attempts to convince the United Nations that construction must begin immediately on an "ark" to carry away (to passing Zyra) some of Earth's population. The United Nations (particularly the Russkies - remember this movie came out during the Cold War), scoff at the notion of a double collision, and refuse to help.

The United States Congress also refuses to participate in the construction of the escape/colony vessel, leaving Hendron to seek assistance from the private sector. He find it there: two wealthy entrepreneurs give everything they own to make the ark a reality The third financier, Stanton (John Hoyt) isn't so magnanimous, however: he'll provide the remaining funds needed, but only if he gets a berth on the rocket; and only if he gets to choose the passenger list. Hendron agrees to the first condition, not the second, but a desperate Stanton folds.

The movie depicts the construction of the space ark (which we see in various stages of completion) and an elaborate mountainside "launch track" which will facilitate escape velocity. As the scientists toil, and gravely count down the days till the twin catastrophes of Zyra and Bellus (which we see marked on calendars in insert shots), there's also a personal drama to focus on. Hendron's beautiful daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush) had been planning to marry a noble physician named Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), but has now fallen in love with the rakish pilot, David Randall (Richard Derr). David doesn't believe he has the right to be one of the "saved" because he feels he has nothing to contribute to a new society. Not to get too symbolic here, but I enjoyed how the film balanced the dilemmas of these three earthly bodies (David, Tony and Joyce) against the disasters befalling the triangle of heavenly bodies (Earth, Zyra and Bellus).

Eventually, Zyra passes by Earth orbit, and the massive disasters occur (to the strains of Leith Stevens' impressive, ominous musical compositions). There's some good footage of New York City getting flooded, skyscrapers half-submerged in roiling water. And, there's even a fantastic shot of the Big Apple in apparently open sea; tall buildings standing amidst cap-sized ocean liners. The latter vista reminded me of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), but I was impressed that speical effects from fifty-seven years ago still hold up so well.

In the last act, the triangle is resolved, there's a noble sacrifice (because Zyra should be for "young people"), and the Earth gets vaporized. Don't panic! The ark makes it to Zyra -- a paradise of green valleys and sunshine -- just in time for a happy fade out. David and Joyce walk off the spaceship together, gazing into a bright future...

Running a scant 82 minutes long, When Worlds Collide is a rip-roaring yarn, and doesn't let itself get bogged down in pesky details. For instance, if Zyra is moving through the solar system so quickly, past Earth and likely past the long will it be habitable for the new settlers?

Also, I found it utterly bizarre that the vast majority of the Earth's population (which will not be saved...) just obligingly experiences the so-called "hour of doom" without rioting or committing some other venal misbehavior. I would suspect that society would fracture and break apart with public knowledge of the impending disaster, not hold together with such admirable nobility and restraint.

Also, the fact that everywhere - across the planet - man reacts nobly to the disaster, deeply undercuts the opening Scripture. I mean, if man is corrupt and worthy of destruction (save for a lucky few Chosen People), how come he responds so well to the end of the Earth? In fact, the only people who respond badly to the Ark's departure are the 556 or so scientists and technicians working on the Ark Project, the ones who aren't chosen in the lottery drawing to ride to Zyra. Again, this seems counter-intuitive. I would figure the scientists and technicians would be much more intellectually accepting of their lot.

There's much talk (by Stanton) of "the law of the jungle" in terms of how humans will react upon learning of the end of the world, but according to When Worlds Collide, it's only the scientific community that goes off the rails. Weird.

What may remain most fascinating about When Worlds Collide today is the manner in which it depicts the early 1950s in American culture. Truman was still President, but the Eisenhower Age was about to commence when the film was released. After years of being in power, the New Deal Democrats were about to hand over the reigns to laissez-faire Republicans. Accordingly, this film works in a jab at the Russians (and at the UN). It also features slap against bureaucracy and government assistance by plugging for entrepreneurs. Similarly, the film seems to ascribe some moral failures on the part of the people for the impending cosmic crisis. What corruption, exactly, are the people being blamed for? What made God angry?

Although the original film is a sort of prehistoric Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998) or Day After Tomorrow (2004), When Worlds Collide is nonetheless on the remake path for 2010.

1 comment: