[box cover]

When Worlds Collide

The world ended in the middle of the 20th century. 1951, in fact. A cataclysmic conflagration caused by the impact of the rogue star Bellus doomed planet Earth utterly. Fortunately, forty-four survivors, most chosen by lottery, managed to escape in a rocketship "ark" built in those last desperate months. Humanity could begin again on Bellus's companion planet, Zyra, an Edenic new world safe from fear, celestial collisions, and apparently anyone who wasn't wholesome American white folk. Such is When Worlds Collide, one of the most fondly remembered science fiction epics from the 1950s. It was producer George Pal's second popular special-effects extravaganza after Destination Moon, and arriving before The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and others he contributed to the sci-fi/fantasy canon. After World War II and throughout the Cold War, end-of-the-world stories became a prominent subgenre, and When Worlds Collide is to apocalypses what The War of the Worlds is to alien invasions — a venerable elder of the tribe in the form of a taut real-world drama featuring never-before-seen special effects, overt biblical allusions, a few pointed observations on mindless mob hysteria, the obligatory romance, scenes of cataclysmic destruction, and a Science as Savior theme. And Pal brought it all in for under a million bucks.

In terms of stock characters, When Worlds Collide delivers the goods. Paramount star Richard Derr plays the square-jawed aviator protagonist who also makes a fine rocket pilot when we need one. Other tropes from Central Casting include the noble scientist, the government officials who remain willingly blind until It's Too Late, the greedy self-serving millionaire ("Your salvation doesn't interest me; mine does!"), the self-sacrificing young man, and the pretty girl (Barbara Rush) who happens to be the daughter of the Head Scientist (Larry Keating). John Hoyt as the Mr. Burns-type millionaire is the most familiar of the "Wasn't he on I Dream of Jeannie?" faces on the screen. Look for Kirk Alyn, the first screen Superman, as Rioter Bringing Guns. The script packs them all into 82 minutes, and Rudolph Maté directed with straight-ahead booster-rocket pacing.

The main attractions here are (1) producer Pal, who had found the niche that would make the phrase "a George Pal movie" readily identifiable to fans right up to today, and (2) the Oscar-winning special effects. Forget testosterone-addled crap like Armageddon or emo half-ways like Deep Impact. Here Pal rumbles earthquakes and unleashes volcanoes and floods coastal metropolises (ocean liners, tipped on their sides, drift past the top floors of the Chrysler Building) — and then destroys the whole damn planet, making it look like Hell itself on the rocketship's viewscreen. The approach of Bellus is appropriately ominous as it grows in the sky day by day and the calendars are rewritten to countdown Doomsday.

Regrettably, the anticlimactic closing shots on the new Eden look more than a little cartoonish and hastily rendered. Nobody stepping out to view "the first sunrise" so much as mentions the pyramids in the distance or the monolithic temple-like structure in the foreground. (The cameraman whose shadow slinks out of frame might have been blocking the view.) And if there's any post-traumatic stress over the billions of friends, family, and other fellow human beings who've just been incinerated, it apparently evaporates with the birth of puppies! Nevertheless, you don't need the Bible font overlay graphics to tell you that here's the perfect place for a stressed-out civilization to start anew — without, um, all those darn foreigners to mess things up again.

Never mind plot logic, don't think too hard about the "sci" component of the sci-fi, and certainly keep the unsubtle sociology and Pal's typical Bible-based gloss in perspective. When Worlds Collide remains entertaining and satisfying, and those final scenes are still worth watching half a century later.

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By the way:

While Pal's movie is a fine representative sample of genre films from its time and place, his source material — Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's 1932 novel When Worlds Collide — was first purchased by Paramount in '34 as a project for Cecil B. DeMille. For better or worse, De Mille chose to make Cleopatra instead and today we can only dream about how he would have done it.

Let's assume that any racist undertones in Pal's movie are just a naive byproduct of the era's habitual audience expectations. However, the original novel, and especially its sequel After Worlds Collide, made no bones about leaving behind all those "inferior" races to burn. After Worlds Collide does include a threatening Yellow Peril, the "Dominion of Asian Realists," who land on the new world in their own Ark and quickly enslave survivors of the British Ark, then try to bomb the American domed settlements. Much breast-beating is occasioned by the existential conflict between the Psalm-quoting survivors against the invading "Midianites" — an Old Testament term our lead characters apply to the "Japs," Russians, and some Germans, described as "cold, cruel, and inhuman" fanatics who "believe in nothing of the individual." Of course these Red Scare-era cartoon baddies "mean to conquer us" and their "desire for our women," we are informed, includes "what they call 'breeding females'." Let's be grateful that whatever 1930s-50s cinema might have done with all that was never tested.

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Paramount's 2001 DVD edition of When Worlds Collide has no special features, but it should please the film's fans until a definitive edition comes along. Telltale flecks, some grain, and momentary color shifts give away the fact that this edition was not digitally restored in any way, but the 1:37 flat full-frame transfer is reasonably clean, the definition is sharp, and the print itself is reasonably free of wear. The Technicolor palette is rich and true, the colors popping exactly as they're supposed to. Likewise, the audio is clean and okay-strong in monaural Dolby Digital 2.0. Even the theatrical trailer looks great. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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