Category Archives: cinema

Films that inspire me– “When Worlds Collide”

There have been science-fiction and fantasy movies since the dawn of film, from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon onward. Although the fact is poorly remembered nowadays, SF and fantasy were there at the start and grew up along with the medium of film itself.

It is safe so say, however, that there are distinct epochs in the history of SFF movies. The earliest films often blurred the lines between fantasy and science fiction, and were often as much about the exploration of the possibilities of film technology and tricks as they were about futuristic stories. Films from the Twenties and Thirties exhibited a strong tendency to mix sci-fi and horror. At the same time, the twenty years between 1920 and 1940 also saw serious works such as Metropolis and Things to Come.

The Second World War worked a sea-change in science-fiction film. Western society was confronted, as it never had been before, with the fact that it was now living in a science-fiction world, with ballistic missiles, radar and nuclear weapons as veritable realities, and with even more disturbing possibilities just over the horizon– cybernetics, World War III, and genetics. The Cold War, as it developed out of the breakdown of the expedient wartime alliance of the West and the Soviet Union, would obviously be fought as much, if not more, on the front-lines of science and technology as in the frozen mountains of Korea or the rice-paddies of Vietnam.

Of necessity, science-fiction films of the Fifties reflected this new understanding. Nowadays the decade is chiefly remembered for often not very well-made B-movies with aliens or radiation-spawned monsters standing in for the Soviets. This memory is justified, in large part– many of these movies were forgettable by any standard. Having said that, there were still a number of very effective films in the decade– Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them (a radioactive-monster film that actually worked), and others, films that overcame the limitations of the period’s special effects capabilities.

One of these was When Worlds Collide.

Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****

Made in 1951 by Rudolph Maté and George Pal, the film is an adaptation of the novel by written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Astronomers discover a wandering star, Bellus, is approaching the Solar System, and will collide with the Earth. A planet orbiting Bellus, Zyra, holds out the possibility of being habitable. The movie is the story of the struggle to build a rocket-ship to take a select group of survivors to Zyra, even as Bellus’ first close pass causes earthquakes and floods, and human society collapses in chaos. At the last moment, the ship is launched, just ahead of rioting left-behinds; the Earth is destroyed, and the ship makes a white-knuckle landing on Zyra, which proves to be habitable.

The movie works as a serious attempt to ask “what if the destruction of the world loomed, and we had only a short time to save some portion of humanity?” The film does a good job creating an atmosphere of sustained, furious effort toward a goal no one is sure they can reach. True to its pre-Sputnik period, the characters repeatedly tell each other that the flight to Zyra is theoretically possible, but a lingering doubt hovers over the project, creating a tension in the narrative that ratchets up the drama (a remake of the film nowadays, about which more below, would lose this tension, as we now have nearly sixty years of engineering art around the building of spacecraft). The workers on the project struggle to finish the spaceship and its launch ramp, even as Zyra’s first close pass causes tidal waves, earthquakes and massive destruction. The final twist of the dramatic knife is that only a limited number of the project workers can go on the ship (a contrast with the original novel)– a lottery is held to select those who will go on ship, and, at the last minute, many of the left behinds riot and attempt to take the ship, even as it is launched.

One of the best ‘special effects’ employed by the movie was the use of artwork by Chesley Bonestell, who also designed the rocket-ship. Having said that, the movie is not without flaws; the final destruction of the Earth is, cinematically, rather disappointing, and the initial chaos caused by the passage of Zyra is mostly conveyed by a lot of stock footage of models being destroyed. The final image of the surface of Zyra after the spaceship lands is also disappointing, appearing somewhat cartoonish in comparison to other artwork in the film; quite simply, the production ran out of money and had to employ one of Bonestell’s colored sketches rather than a finished painting.

In addition, many of the characters are rather stock. One exception is David Randall (Richard Derr), a devil-may-care horn-dog mercenary pilot who gets pulled into the project, a sort of Indiana Jones precursor. But the one really stand-out character is that of industrialist and all-around jerk Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt), who bankrolls the spaceship project to make sure he has a seat on the craft, despite being crippled and and a dead-weight in general. His comeuppance is one of the dramatic high-points of the film.

These complaints, however, hardly rise above the level of quibbles. The movie as a whole works like gangbusters, building a realistic sense of urgency, desperation and impending doom, as Bellus looms closer and closer. When Worlds Collide is one of the early crop of post-war sci-fi films, such as Destination Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still, that took its subject seriously. It did not engage in camp, or insert cheap bits of horror. Later films in the decade would do both, and too many of those later films just did not match the solid story-telling of When Worlds Collide.

This film is the rare classic sci-fi film I would love to see remade. Indeed, I would love to write it, even though my screenwriting credits are negligible. Normally I am adamantly against remakes of movies that just basically worked in the first place (remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still was a crime), but this story begs to remade with modern special effects. That’s despite the fact that, as I’ve already mentioned, we would lose some dramatic tension simply because the question “is the spaceship going to work” would, more-or-less, already be answered. There is, however, more than enough drama in the struggle to build the space ark (or arks, more probably) and in the tension between the saved and the left-behinds to carry the story forward.

Unfortunately, although there have been periodic announcements of a remake in the works, nothing has come of them, and the project appears to be more-or-less permanently stuck in the limbo of development hell (talk about negative places…). I am not at all clued into the Hollywood grapevine, so the details of why this has not happened eludes me, but it’s a shame. If it were well-written (admittedly, always a concern), a new When Worlds Collide would rock very hard.

Someday, perhaps. Meanwhile, I think I should work on my screen-writing skills, just in case the call comes….

Later.

I ain’t no screenwriter….

….and occasionally the universe rears up and smacks me across the face with the wet mackerel of reminder about that fact.

Progress on Princess of Fire appears to be coming in fits and starts at this point– one day I’ll do a thousand words, and the next I’ll do two hundred, which wouldn’t be so bad, except the day after that I’ll do nothing. Picture an icebreaker in Antarctica….

Yesterday while I was not writing Fire I started doodling on a synopsis of a screenplay idea I’ve had for some time, and was pleased that I resolved a piece of action that had been hanging me up. When complete, this synopsis– which, in my innocence, I have dared to call a “treatment”– may be about six pages long.

That’s when I made a big mistake– I googled “film treatment”, found the Wikipedia article on the subject, and discovered that James Cameron’s original treatment for Terminator is available for free online. I downloaded it.

It makes my effort look like a first-grader’s mud-pie.

We’re talking forty-eight pages of awesome. Camera directions. Scene settings. Dialogue. Even in the treatment the unforgiving pace that makes watching Terminator an activity that requires a safety harness comes through.

My synopsis doesn’t do that. It sorta flops over and lies there, gasping.

Sigh. I should have known better– I love film, but I have no training in screenwriting, and it shows. I’ve made one or two efforts at writing a screenplay– I’ve even got a copy of Final Draft– but my efforts are weak tea, at best. I seem to do better with prose. Not incredibly better, but some.

Is there a moral in this? I don’t want to go on record telling people they shouldn’t work at something outside their comfort zone. Absolutely do so if there is something you’re burning to achieve. But it is a reminder for me that I should not dissipate my energy on things that have little chance of success– I don’t have enough time left on this Earth to be engaged in the pursuit of non-domesticated water-fowl.

Besides, that film idea would probably make a dandy novel…hmm.

Later.

Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part Two

(This is the second part of my discussion of the movie Things to Come)

Part Two– how this film inspires me.

My previous post was an appreciation of Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, discussing how it is a powerful, if sometimes disturbing, early science-fiction film classic. One of the powerful aspects of the film is that it took contemporary events and concerns of 1936 and projected them into an effective “future history“. There were many thunderstorms looming on the horizon that year. Germany was rising again under the Nazi dictatorship, which had no scruples about telling the whole world what it meant to do, especially in Eastern Europe. Asia had already seen the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and would see all-out war between Japan and China in 1937. Civil War broke out in Spain in July, 1936, in what most historians now see as a dress-rehearsal for World War II. It didn’t take much prescience to see that another general war was coming.

The course the film lays out for this new Great War is a reasonable projection of the first Great War, which was deadlocked for most of its history. Supposing that the war could go on for year after year of bloody stalemate was not a wild leap of the imagination. In that stalemate the breakdown of civilization and the previous world order was all-too-reasonably a possibility.

The fact that the actual history did not turn out the way Things to Come thought they might teaches us some lessons about the business of alternate history. It also teaches us something about irony.

In its classic form, alternate history takes a single, critical event and changes it– Lee Harvey Oswald misses Kennedy, Hitler dies of poison gas in World War One, Harry Truman loses the 1948 presidential election– and examines how that one change alters history. When it’s done thoughtfully and well, alternate history can create worlds that are tragic, or evocative of what might have been, and can teach us important lessons about the contingency of life and history on decisions which might even appear trivial at that moment.

Watching Things to Come reminds me of all the ways history could have turned out differently in World War Two. The period is loaded with potential branch points for an alternate history, and it’s been a favorite of sci-fi writers for decades. World War Two is also a rich field for alternate history writers because the moral implications of a Nazi victory in the war would have been so profound– a nightmare that barely bears thinking about. Even short of that catastrophe, postwar history could have turned out a thousand different ways, right down to the very personal and intimate. What if Anne Frank had survived the war? What if Eisenhower and Kay Summersby had really hooked up? What if Hitler had immigrated to America in 1919 and become an illustrator for science-fiction magazines– which is the actual premise of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream.

All of this is fertile ground for science-fiction writers, and looks to remain so for a long time to come.

At this point, though, you might be asking what Things to Come has to with alternate history– it was created as a future-history, not alternate history. To put it simply, all future-histories are fated to become alternate history. Eventually every future sketched out by an author finds itself diverging from factual history, real-life events having no obligation to adhere to some writer’s conception of what path they should follow. When this happens, some authors try to retcon their stories, but others throw in the towel and say, “It’s alternate history”. As an example, the future history of Star Trek, as described in the original series, has now diverged from factual history (no Eugenics War in the 1990’s, etc.).

In the case of The Shape of Things to Come, Wells’ original 1933 novel, his future history was obsolete almost at once. Things to Come did a little bit better, but by 1946 or so it was already diverging from real life– Western civilization did not fall into a recurring cycle of hot wars lasting a generation, but rather a Cold War with peripheral bush-wars and serious economic and political competition between East and West.

So why didn’t the future of Things to Come become our factual history?

The answer is pretty damn ironic– nuclear weapons.

Suppose that nuclear science took a different path in the 1930’s and that no one on the planet in 1940 has an inkling that nuclear weapons are a practical possibility. That means no Manhattan Project, no Tube Alloys (the code-name for the British bomb project), no German nuclear weapon program, no Soviet effort, no Japanese investigations– every major power had some sort of nuclear research going on on during the war. In fact, one of the poorly remembered aspects of the history of World War II is that, in certain circles, there was real fear the Germans were years ahead of the Allies and might deploy a weapon before them. In fact, for several different reasons, they were years behind.

Just as it was in the factual history, in our alternate history the war in Europe would have been won by conventional forces in the spring of 1945. The immediate result of our small alteration would almost certainly have been that the planned invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945 would have gone forward. The Allies anticipated a long, hard campaign to subjugate the Japanese home islands, including a million casualties (killed, wounded, missing). There is no telling how devastated such a invasion would have left Japan, over and above the destruction already wrecked by aerial bombing.

Suppose the conquest of Japan adds two additional years or so to the war, so that World War Two ends in 1947 or 1948 (GIs in the Pacific anticipated this– their poetic formula for the end of the war was “Golden Gate in ’48”). America’s instinct then, as it was in the factual history, would have almost certainly been to demobilize the Army.

But….

In the absence of a nuclear deterrent, it is conceivable that the Soviets, under Stalin, would have seen the weak occupation forces the Western allies had in Germany (and they were weak), and been tempted to use the still powerful Red Army to try and scoop up West Berlin and then the rest of Germany. If so, the war would have resumed as the former allies fell out (as former allies tend to do)– and Wells’ generation of war would have been well under way.

In the factual history, though, nuclear weapons made even Joe Stalin think twice about resuming conventional warfare in the heart of Europe. The salient irony of nuclear weapons in the Cold War is that they were practically useless, in any traditional war-making sense– nobody ever figured out a meaningful definition of “victory” in a nuclear-armed standoff. As a result, a kind of quasi-peace settled over Europe, allowing it to rebuild and affording two generations of Europeans the time and space to buy Mercedes and Audis and time-shares in Majorca, rather than having to scratch for food amid the ruins of Birmingham or Paris.

This is what makes alternate history so much fun, seeing how one factor can change the whole historical equation. It’s also what makes it very hard to get right.

But I intend to keep trying.

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My next post on a film that inspires me– Aliens. Oh, yeah– this is the big one. Buckle up.

Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part One

(I have so much to say about this film and how it inspires me that I’ve broken this post into two parts– an outline of the movie itself and how it gets my creative juices going)

Part One– The movie

I love history, and, as a corollary, being a science-fiction fan, I am deeply in love with alternate history. The exploration of how history might have turned out fascinate me. At one time or another, most science-fiction authors have tried their hands at alternate history, while some have make it their chief stock-in-trade (S.M. Stirling and Harry Turtledove, for example).

Alternate history is what my mind turns to whenever I watch Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, (very) loosely based on a story by H. G. Wells, from 1936–

Starting in a then near-future 1940, it posits the advent of World War II (although the enemy nations are kept safely anonymous in the film) as the starting point of a new Thirty-Years War, a conflict that drags on and on until human civilization lies shattered. It is rescued by Wings Over the World, an super-scientific organization dedicated to peace and progress. The rest of the film depicts the world of 2036, as the scientific elite launches a Moon mission, against the resistance of narrow-minded romantics who stand against Progress (note the capital letter. We’ll come back to that later).

Alexander Korda tended to imbue his films with an ambitious sweep, and this one is no exception, starting out with the opening sequence, in which worrisome war warnings juxtapose with life-as-usual Yuletide merriment. The film loosely follows a group of people and their descendants through the destruction of the war, the aftermath, reconstruction and shiny future. Its whole point is that Progress is good and essential, and anything that gets in its way needs to be put aside.

In many ways the film was prescient in the way it depicts what is to come, particularly the effects of war on civilization. The sequences in the bombed-out ruins of the town meant to stand in for all of England (or, for that matter, all of Western civilization) could have been any number of actual locations in Europe or Asia in 1945. Aerial bombing and biological warfare are both part of the narrative, and major reasons why civilization breaks apart. The film loses its prescience to some extent when it enters its final sequence– the Lucite, Art Deco future in which everyone wears sandals and cloaks looks quaint now, but that doesn’t really take too much away from the overall vision of the filmmakers.

The film is not perfect, and one real imperfection is the fact that the locales are allegories (the town at the center of the story is called “Everytown”, just to hammer the point home), and most of the characters are archetypes. One exception is (not yet Sir) Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of the Boss, the local warlord of Everytown in 1970. Richardson brought a blustery avarice and self-aggrandizement to the character that reminds one most pointedly of Mussolini, and he owned the middle part of the film.

But an enormously more problematic aspect of the movie is its fixation with Progress. How much this fixation was Wells’ or Korda’s, or both, I don’t know, but it’s pretty much the axle around which the film revolves. As I’ve already indicated, we’re obviously talking about Progress with a capital “P”, progress that becomes a thing in itself, and in the path of which nothing, not even real, breathing human beings, can be allowed stand. In its radical form it assumes the aspects of religion, and has been used to justify everything from bulldozing forests to Communism. The final speech by Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey), the head honcho of the Everytown of 2036, is all about life being a stark choice between extinction and Progress. It’s a little disconcerting to hear this in a film from this precise period, knowing as we do everything That Was to Come. The Twentieth Century drank the cup of that sort of “progress” to its dregs, and we nowadays can’t listen to this speech with the same innocence with which people in 1936 might have heard it.

(A quick aside– this period was also when J. R. R. Tolkien was rousing from his academic slumbers to first pen The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings. Quite a juxtaposition…there’s a master’s thesis or two in there….)

Despite this objection, this film still has power. The tattered state of civilization after the war still speaks to the human capacity for destruction, and resilience. The sequence leading up to the firing of the space-gun is tense, and still somehow evokes the sense of being in NASA Mission Control during a launch, thirty years before the fact. It keeps you riveted, and not many films closing in on their eightieth anniversary can say that. Things to Come is one of the few really great pre-World War II science-fiction films, and a landmark in sci-fi cinema in general.

Next– Part Two– how this film inspires me.