“When Worlds Collide” (1951)
Running time: 83 minutes
Written by: Sydney Boehm based on the book When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie
Directed by: Rudolph Maté
Featuring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen and John Hoyt
Dr. Emery Bronson: “If our calculations prove to be correct, this will be the most frightening discovery of all time.”
Released on Blu-Ray recently is the classic science fiction movie “When Worlds Collide” (1951) an excellent example of its genre from the time period where science fiction was one of the more popular genres of the 1950s and 1960s when Cold War paranoia was coming into its own with the after effects of World War II. “When Worlds Collide” may not be what is thought of as a typical Cold War science fiction movie it does when looked at meet many of the criteria that make it one. In fact it is a stand out movie of the 1950s not only of its genre but also a highlight for all those involved.
When looking at what makes a Cold War science fiction movie there are four main themes, they are (1) Extraterrestrial travel, (2) Alien invasion and infiltration, (3) Mutants, metamorphosis, and resurrection of extinct species, and (4) Near annihilation or the end of the Earth. Each of these themes related, at least indirectly, to the world events of the 1950s and reflected the fear and anxiety of the atomic age and the Cold War. The themes were Hollywood’s version of a nation coming to grips with its postwar knowledge that humanity could destroy itself as well as the paranoia that had resulted from the red scare, in which Communists appeared to be infiltrating and subverting normal American life and values. Victorious in World War II, Americans now feared failure in the face of atomic and nuclear energy in the hands of the enemy. Science fiction films tended to merge the fear of a Communist takeover with the fear of annihilation, particularly in the form of invasion from outside forces.
The plot of the movie concerns David Randall who flies top-secret photographs from South African astronomer Dr. Emery Bronson to Dr. Cole Hendron in the United States. Hendron, with the assistance of his daughter Joyce, confirms their worst fears: Bronson has discovered that a rogue star named Bellus is on a collision course with Earth. Hendron warns the United Nations that the end of the world is little more than eight months away. He pleads for the construction of “arks” to transport a lucky few to Zyra, the sole planet orbiting Bellus, in the faint hope that the human race can be saved from extinction. Other scientists scoff at his claims, and his proposal is rejected by the delegates. From here the ‘rogue’ scientists go there own way and the story unfolds to something that by now modern audiences would immediately recognise.
“When Worlds Collide” was directed by Rudolph Maté, a Polish born filmmaker who worked extensively in Europe before moving to the US before the outbreak of World War II. Maté was a skilled filmmaker who worked as a cinematographer before starting to direct some very good in movies in a variety of genres. In “When Worlds Collide” he illustrates both of these skills as it has many in camera effects as well as a narrative that needs to be balanced to show a variety of elements from the main characters to effects of the planet on Earth. It is all vert skilfully done and it shows how a serious filmmaker with ambition could elevate what could have been B movie schlock.
Led by the performances of the three leads in Richard Derr, Barbara Rush and Peter Hansen who were all great and experienced character actors this movie succeeds because of their seriousness and believability that never waivers or sinks into them taking the material nothing less than what it is, a great science fiction story. If at any time there had have been a doubt in the performances or a wink to the camera then this would have been quite the inferior genre piece, at the same time there are no over the top performances either which is a skill unto itself.
One of the elements of the movie that strikes a chord on todays world is the idea of scientists not only discovering a problem but devising a solution. If this sounds familiar think about the situation that the US finds itself in now with a pandemic having killed over 200,000 people with many scientists and doctors offering solutions but politicians not willing to implement any of their ideas to protect people. This movie shows how wrong people can be when they seek to protect an untenable position that will cost lives down the road. Of course when things are at there worst, that is when the rocket is taking off and it is obvious with people dying around them, that is when people want to be saved. Over the next year it will be interesting to see whether the US is in a better situation, or in a far more precarious position.
In terms of overall science fiction movies “When Worlds Collide” is one of my favourites, the picture looks amazing, the performances are all excellent and the story is showing something people had never seen but would not get tired of, as the endless homages to it show and even the remake of sorts with “Melancholia” (2011).
90min of extended interviews with Gene Roddenberry, Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, Roy Edward Disney, Wah Chang, Russ Tamblyn & Duke Goldstone recorded for the 1985 documentary ”Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal”.
NEW exclusive audio commentary by film critics Barry Forshaw & Kim Newman