Review: When Worlds Collide (1951)

Spoiler warning! This review discusses the film’s ending. However, this author maintains that knowledge of the ending won’t spoil your fun, but rather might increase your interest in seeing the film.

When Worlds Collide is a solid example of 1950s science fiction filmmaking as well as an early example of the global disaster movie. Although its spectacle cannot compare to the likes of twenty-first century blockbusters such as The Day After Tomorrow or 2012, to the film’s credit, it’s narrative trajectory and themes are as bold and compelling as most any disaster movie made since. Likewise, the main problem with the film is not unique to it but rather continues to plague the disaster genre to this day.

Pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) is recruited to fly secret astronomical data from South Africa to Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) in New York City. There he meets Hendron’s daughter and assistant, Joyce (Barbara Rush), and her fiancé, Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), and, of course, a love triangle ensues. At the same time, the data provided confirms that the rogue star Bellus is on a collision course with Earth. First, however, the single planet orbiting the star, Zyra, will pass very close by Earth, and its gravitational pull will wreak havoc across the globe. In anticipation of our planet’s destruction, Hendron tries to recruit help to build a spaceship “ark” to fly to Zyra before the collision with Bellus, but the international community denounces him as a quack. With the aid of a few private industrialists, namely the selfishly-motivated Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), Hendron builds the spaceship in order to save a small number of human beings, key works of civilization, and various plants and animals.

Clearly, When Worlds Collide isn’t a film about humankind coming together to survive; rather, it’s about plucky, capable individuals working to save a remnant in spite of humanity’s foolishness and other worst tendencies. The film opens on a passage from the biblical story of Noah referencing humanity’s failings (which also recalls the religious additions to science fiction films in the 1950s, most notably in George Pal’s War of the Worlds). Later on, events continue to suggest a darker view of human nature. For example, a violent mob is the reaction to the results of the lottery held in Hendron’s work camp in order to determine who gets to go on the spaceship. And the entire project only goes forward because Hendron collaborates with Stanton, a cruel misanthropist interested in financing the construction of the spaceship simply in order to save himself. The film’s pragmatic libertarianism stands in contrast to the global disaster movies that have followed, in which governments tend to be the agents of humanity’s salvation.

Produced by science fiction luminary George Pal, the film has decent special effects for the period, and though the filmmakers clearly raided stock footage archives to show the disastrous effects of Zyra across the planet (we see buildings burn, etc.), the effect is still sufficiently unsettling. The only glaring visual flaw is the fake-looking image of a sunken New York City and the final image of morning on Zyra; apparently early sketches had to be used instead of realistic matte paintings due to budgetary constraints.

The film’s main problem lies with the narrative structure though, not the technique. How are viewers to weigh our interest in the central characters against the countless lives lost, whether onscreen or not? Why should we care whether a couple comes together in the face of so much loss and destruction? Hollywood has always balanced any larger narratives and thematic interests in its films with personal-driven narratives; in disaster movies, this typical Hollywood emphasis looks unbalanced. Just as some critical distance while watching Roland Emmerich’s 2012 might raise the question of why we should care whether John Cusack reconnects with his family while we are seeing the earth literally split apart, the inordinate emphasis on a few person’s relationships in When Worlds Collide left a bad taste in my mouth.

Even though the film criticizes Stanton’s selfish motivations, Hendron also reserves room for himself and his daughter on the spaceship, a situation presented as a given. The love triangle plot becomes complicated when Randall refuses Hendron’s special selection; Randall doesn’t believe he’s a vital addition to the remnant of humanity. Randall’s choice is a reality only because Hendron wants to bring along both of his daughter’s love interests for personal reasons. Hendron ultimately sacrifices himself, but it is to keep two young lovers together; in the end, human relationship motivates his selfless act. The fact that we are meant to cheer Randall’s eventual decision to go on the spaceship because he’s in love complicates the film’s criticism of human self-interest. That said, I do not believe this thematic issue ruins the film; rather, it stands out as an issue that continues in the genre to this day. It raises the question, though, of how filmmakers might tell a disaster movie that does not emphasize a few persons’ survival over the greater loss.

If When Worlds Collide fails as a human drama, and if it only moderately satisfies as a spectacle, the film’s political and economic themes continue to interest, and its ending stands out as nearly inconceivable in today’s multiplex. Earth is destroyed. Forty or so people survive. While the film presents the new dawn on Zyra as a happy ending because most of the main characters have made it and humankind will survive (and it seems to be presented in that order of importance), the happy ending does not erase the bold creative choice to actually end the world. The only other movie with a similar ending I can think of is Knowing (2009). The film also gains added currency in the twenty-first century: its dreary view of humanity’s justifications and dismissals in the face of warnings of disaster resonate with us as our planet faces environmental catastrophe today.

7 out of 10

When Worlds Collide (1951, USA)

Directed by Rudolph Maté; screenplay by Sydney Boehm, based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie; starring Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt, and Larry Keating.