When Worlds Collide (1951 film)

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When Worlds Collide
Worldcollide.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Produced by George Pal
Written by Sydney Boehm
Novel
Edwin Balmer
Philip Wylie
Starring Richard Derr
Barbara Rush
Peter Hansen
John Hoyt
Music by Leith Stevens
Cinematography W. Howard Greene
John F. Seitz
Editing by Arthur P. Schmidt
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates 22 November 1951 (Los Angeles opening)[1]
Running time 83 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $1.6 million (US rentals)[2]

When Worlds Collide is a 1951 science fiction film based on the 1933 novel co-written by Philip Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer. The film was shot in Technicolor, directed by Rudolph Maté and was the winner of the 1951 Academy Award for special effects.[3]

Producer George Pal considered making a sequel based on the novel After Worlds Collide, but the box office failure of his 1955 Conquest of Space made it impossible.

Plot[edit]

Pilot David Randall is paid to fly top-secret photographs from South African astronomer Dr. Emery Bronson to Dr. Cole Hendron in America. Hendron, with the assistance of his daughter Joyce, confirms their worst fears—Bronson has discovered a star named Bellus that is on a collision course with Earth.

Hendron warns the delegates of the United Nations that the end of the world is little more than eight months away. He pleads for the construction of spaceships to transport a lucky few to Zyra, a planet in orbit around Bellus, in the faint hope that it can sustain life and save the human race from extinction. However, other, equally distinguished scientists scoff at his claims, and he is not believed. Hendron receives help from wealthy humanitarian friends, who arrange a lease on a former proving ground to construct a spaceship. To finance the construction, Hendron is forced to accept money from self-centered, wheelchair-bound industrialist Sidney Stanton. Stanton demands the right to select the passengers, but Hendron insists that he is not qualified to make those choices and that all he can buy is a single seat on the ark.

Joyce becomes attracted to Randall and prods her father into finding reasons to keep him around, much to the annoyance of her boyfriend, medical doctor Tony Drake. The ship's construction is a race against time. As Bellus nears, and Hendron’s predictions become apparent, former skeptics admit that Hendron is right and governments prepare for the inevitable. Groups in other nations also begin building ships. Martial law is declared and residents in coastal regions are moved to inland cities.

Zyra first makes a close approach, its gravitational attraction causing massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves that wreak havoc. Several people are killed at the construction camp, including Dr. Bronson. In the aftermath, Drake and Randall travel by helicopter to provide assistance to survivors. When Randall alights to rescue a little boy, Drake has to resist a strong temptation to strand him.

As the day of doom approaches, the ship is loaded with food, medicine, microfiche copies of books, equipment, and animals. Finally, most of the passengers are selected by lottery, though Hendron reserves seats for a handful of people: himself, Stanton, Joyce, Drake, pilot Dr. George Frey, the young boy who was rescued, and Randall, for his daughter's sake. When a young man turns in his winning ticket because his girl was not selected, Hendron arranges for both to go. Randall refuses his seat and only pretends to participate in the lottery, believing that he has no useful skills. For Joyce's sake, Drake fabricates a "heart condition" for Frey, making a backup pilot necessary. Randall is the obvious choice.

The cynical Stanton becomes increasingly anxious as time passes. Knowing human nature, he fears what the desperate lottery losers might do. As a precaution, he has stockpiled weapons. Stanton's suspicions prove to be well-founded. His much-abused assistant, Ferris, tries to get himself added to the crew at gunpoint, only to be shot dead by Stanton. During the final night, the selected passengers and animals are quietly moved to the launch pad to protect them from more violence.

Shortly before takeoff, many of the lottery losers riot, taking up Stanton's weapons to try to force their way aboard. Hendron stays behind at the last moment, forcibly keeping the crippled Stanton and his wheelchair from boarding in order to lighten the spaceship. With an effort born of desperation, Stanton stands up and starts walking in a futile attempt to board the ship before it takes off.

The crew are rendered unconscious by the acceleration and do not witness the disturbing view of Earth's collision with Bellus, shown on the television monitor. When Randall comes to and sees Dr. Frey already awake, he realizes he was deceived.

As they approach Zyra, the fuel runs out and Randall has to make an unpowered rough landing. The passengers disembark and find the planet to be habitable. David Randall and Joyce Hendron walk hand in hand to explore their new home.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

The production of a film based on the original novels had first been considered by Cecil B. DeMille in the 1930s. When George Pal began considering a film version, he initially wanted a more lavish production with a larger budget. However, he ended up scaling back his plans. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was first considered for the role of Dave Randall, before Richard Derr was selected for the part.[4]

Chesley Bonestell is credited with the artwork for the film. He created the design for the space ark that was constructed for the journey to the other world. The final scene in the movie showing the landscape on the alien world was actually a sketch made by Bonestell. Because of budget constraints, the director used the sketch rather than a finished matte painting; drawing criticism as a result. The poor quality still image showing a drowned New York City is often attributed to Bonestell, but was not actually made by him.[5]

The Differential analyzer at UCLA is shown briefly near the beginning of the film. It verifies the hand calculations, confirming "There is no error."

Reception[edit]

Freelance writer Melvin E. Matthews calls the film a "doomsday parable for the nuclear age of the '50s".[6] Emory University physics professor Sidney Perkowitz notes that this film is the first in a long list of movies where "science wielded by a heroic scientist confronts a catastrophe". He calls the special effects exceptional.[7] Librarian and filmographer Charles P. Mitchell was critical of the "scientific gaffes that dilute the storyline", as well as a "failure to provide consistent first class effects". He pointed out that there were inconsistencies in the script, such as the disappearance of Dr. Bronson in the second half of the film,[Note 1] and the story of what happened with the sister spacecraft being built by other nations. He summarizes by saying that, "the large number of plot defects are annoying and prevent this admirable effort from achieving top-drawer status".[4]

Cultural references[edit]

When Worlds Collide is one of the many classic films referenced in the opening theme ("Science Fiction/Double Feature") of both the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show (1973) and its cinematic counterpart, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1976).

When Worlds Collide is the title of a 1975 album (the related single is "Did Worlds Collide?") by Richard Hudson and John Ford, their third release after leaving Strawbs.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), two cargo containers can be seen labeled "Bellus" and "Zyra" in the Genesis cave.

In the film L.A. Confidential (1997), the publisher of a trashy tabloid arranges for a publicity-loving LAPD officer to arrest a young actor on the night of this film's premiere, resulting in photos of the arrest with the theatre holding the premiere in the background accompanied by the headline "Movie Premiere Pot Bust" (the scene is shown taking place in 1953, long after the 1951 premiere of When Worlds Collide).

"When Worlds Collide" is the title of a single by the heavy metal band Powerman 5000 from the 1999 album Tonight the Stars Revolt!

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Dr. Bronson was mentioned as arriving at Hendron's camp in dialog and depicted as being killed when a construction crane fell on him during the devastating passage of Zyra; these occurrences were missed by Mr Mitchell

References[edit]

  1. ^ TCM "When Worlds Collide" Accessed 20 July 2013
  2. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1951', Variety, January 2, 1952
  3. ^ Sullivan, III, C. W. (2011), Hochscherf, Tobias; Leggott, James; Palumbo, Donald E. et al., eds., British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays, Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 29, McFarland, p. 21, ISBN 0-7864-4621-8 
  4. ^ a b Mitchell, Charles P. (2001), A guide to apocalyptic cinema, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 252–254, ISBN 0-313-31527-2 
  5. ^ Miller, Ron; Bonestell, Chesley; Durant, Frederick C.; Schuetz, Melvin H. (2001), The art of Chesley Bonestell, HarperCollins, p. 65, ISBN 1-85585-905-X 
  6. ^ Matthews, Melvin E. (2007), Hostile aliens, Hollywood, and today's news: 1950s science fiction films and 9/11, Algora Publishing, pp. 73–74, ISBN 0-87586-497-X 
  7. ^ Perkowitz, S. (2007). Hollywood science: movies, science, and the end of the world. Columbia University Press. p. 9. ISBN 0-231-14280-3. 

External links[edit]