Worlds Collide, Pal!
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Out in the inky, measureless depths of space is a star hurtling towards earth, and there is nothing humanity can do to stop it. It’s not giving much of the plot away when I say that our little blue planet will explode in a dramatic ball of fire and dust.
Before it all ends, 1951’s When Worlds Collide works overtime to make sure we care about who’s there (and who’s not) when it does. Forty years before Michael Bay and his blue filters and patriotism and macho bullshit, When Worlds Collide did all those things, and threw in a Bible verse or two. It’s all as heavy handed and Anglo Saxon as you’re probably imagining. I’ll just say this right now: Noah’s space ark only had enough room for white people. The only people who survive the destruction of earth are gringos. Yes, it’s a major turn-off over 65 years later. Did people notice this lack of racial diversity upon its release? God, I fucking hope so…
Alright, anyway, high among the snow-capped mountains in South Africa, Doctor Cole Hendron makes a startling discovery and calls them Bellus and Zyra: a sun and orbiting planet on a direct course for earth, perhaps to… collide! Zyra will barely miss earth, causing earthquakes and tsunamis like the world has never seen, and Bellus will hit us head on and finish us off but good. Hendron must get this dire news to his colleagues in America right away, so he hires his best pilot to do the job.
That manly pilot’s handsome name is David Randall, and we first meet him as he’s coasting over snowy mountains in a single engine plane with a beautiful blonde on his lap. He’s gonna be our hero, and he’s got a square jaw, shock of blond hair and leather jacket to prove it, fellas!
So, briefcase full of bad news shackled to his wrist, Dave heads for Warshington, USA, America! He’s met at the airport by Joyce Hendron, fetching daughter of the old Doc, and Dr. Tony Drake, her handsome (not as handsome as Dave, fellas) beau, and off they go to let the gray hairs and geeks have a look. They, sadly, confirm Hendron’s suspicions, and it’s off tell the government. Surely they’ll believe our heroic band of stargazers!
Hendron is labeled a kook, and they’re practically run outta town on a rail. He becomes a laughingstock and paperboys all over town are yelling stuff like, “Read all about it! Crazy fool scientist says world ending!” I’ll give the film this: it has about as much use for science deniers as I do… which isn’t much… none, really.
Thankfully, a crazy rich guy (he’s crazy and rich) believes them, and agrees to toss a couple million dollars their way to help Hendron and his team complete work on their escape rocket, provided he gets a seat. Said crazy guy, Sydney Stanton, doesn’t exactly believe them, but he doesn’t not believe them either, if you get my meaning. Oh, he’s in a wheelchair, and he’s got one of those “Push me! You may leave us,” guys he bosses around.
The design of the space ark is kinda cool. It rests upon a track that, for lack of better words, resembles a roller coaster ski lift. It’s gonna go down, gain momentum as it begins its climb, and then lift off. The only hope for humanity lies upon the planet that will serve as a prelude to the end: Zyra.
Dotted about the construction site are signs that say stuff like, “waste anything but TIME!” Yeah, save for a wry scene where Dave lights his cigarettes with money, the film sorely lacks a sense of humor. Oh, and it’s got a love triangle. I forgot to mention that because it’s dumb, and too easily resolved. “She picked the right fella, Dave” ::back slap:: “Aw gosh shucks gee whiz!”
So planet Zyra does her flyby, and the effects are… effective! A combination of miniature, matte painting and stock footage, all set to ominous rumbles and explosions. The main cast is tossed about a shaking set, and lights tumble from the ceiling. There’s even a particularly good shot of the streets of New York being destroyed by a hundred foot high tidal wave. It’s all really well done and almost makes up for me to have to watch clean-cut idiots from the 50’s do stupid 50’s crap for almost an hour.
The construction crew rallies and gets back to work, wearing their matching navy blue knit caps and poop brown jumpsuits. If you plan on watching this film, be sure and note all the white people in their silly poop brown jumpsuits. They amuse me even now. I guess there weren’t as many things people considered silly back then. Pretty much just communism, Jerry Lewis and the female orgasm, if I remember my history.
Uh, so Bellus has been nearing daily, to the point where it almost completely fills the skies, casting an orange glow upon the world and kicking up blinding dust storms. Lots have been drawn, and those lucky few who have been chosen are aboard the ship. Those left behind are decidedly peeved and decide to grab guns make a dash for the ship. Doctor Hendron, who has been wheeling Stanton to the boarding plank, decides to initiate lift-off and save humanity from itself… one last time! Stanton isn’t happy about this, and lifts himself from his wheelchair as the ship begins to accelerate to liftoff. The space ark makes its escape just as earth is destroyed in a ball of fire.
On board, Big Dave is piloting and it takes, uh, like five minutes to get to Zyra. It must’ve only been in the next space county. He flops the ship down with bingo fuel at the foot of a snowy, alien mountain range, and rushes to open the door because, shit, what’ve they got to lose at this point? Humanity’s survivors hold each other and survey their new home. A dog has puppies. The finally matte painting lacks a bit of detail, but is inspiring nonetheless. Yes it is. Stop nitpicking!
The final text, in bold, biblical letters, reads: “The first day on the new world had begun…” An angelic choir swells with hope. The end!
When Worlds Collide is primarily a product of the mind effects whiz George Pal. His ambitious SFX here are worth the price of admission alone. You may know him from two of his more well-regarded films: The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Maybe Pal was better with classic source material. At any rate, When Worlds Collide is a lot of fun, if you can get over the fact that it’s all white people, and that’s fine with everybody. You won’t be able to, but you’re welcome to try.
It is, however, fun to watch the world blow up in Glorious Technicolor.