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.
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….