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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » When Worlds Collide
When Worlds Collide
MGM // G // October 2, 2001
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted October 7, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Note: part of this review is adapted from an earlier Savant article about Movies with Astral Collisions.

When Worlds Collide is a naive but fondly remembered science fiction epic from the dawn of the first wave of sci fi movies, that brief period in time when big studios were still willing to commit relatively large budgets to the genre. A 1930s concoction probably inspired by Abel Gance's La fin du monde, this is a George Pal movie that skirts the racism of its literary source, but retains its religious framework, bathing the show in the kind of sanctimony that typifies the movies of Cecil B. De Mille, for whom the script was commissioned twenty years before.

Synopsis:

Freelance pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) jumps into the middle of world-shattering events when he delivers a set of photographic plates from a South African observatory to the New York lab of Cole Hendron (Larry Keating). The astronomical bottom line is that two rogue interstellar planets, dubbed Bellus and Zyra, are going to collide with and destroy the Earth in only eight months' time. While Hendron scrambles to build a 'Space Ark' to ferry a small group of humans away from Earth and out of harm's way, Randall finds himself attracted to Hendron's daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), working hard on the spaceship project all the while knowing there's no reason to take a bush pilot along to help start a new world. But before the final impact, one of the planetoids will pass close enough to Earth to cause cataclysmic earthquakes and flooding - and there's a chance nobody will survive if they keep the Space Ark from being completed in time.

George Pal's When Worlds Collide is a 1951 best special effects Oscar winner, and was also nominated for best cinematography.  The two depression-era novels on which it was based, by Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, are so popular they remain in print to this day.  Despite the fact that they are filled with racist hatred for anything Asian, and are overrun with cockeyed religous symbolism, the books were standard fare in school libraries of the '60s.  Devout producer Pal retained the Christ metaphor of the books that made the stellar apocalypse into a thinly disguised Second Coming.  Two heavenly bodies, the planet Bronson Alpha (or Bellus in the film) and its smaller satellite Bronson Beta (Zyra) will intersect Earth's orbit in only eight months.  Bellus, representing the Old Testament Jehovah, will smash the Earth to pulp, killing every living soul.  No simple flood this time folks ... but Earth has a second chance, of sorts.  A few weeks before Bellus, its moon Zyra, representing Jesus Christ, will pass close by our planet, causing massive earthquakes, tidal waves and other assorted havoc.  Only the Chosen Few technocrats who believe in science and are daring enough to build Space Arks to fly to Zyra will be saved.

Seen today, When Worlds Collide is a charming hoot, but still a far better movie than the idiotic Armageddon.  It begins and ends with the ponderous opening and closing of a Bible.  Bellus, schmellus, we know who's really wiping out the Earth!  The inside of the Space Ark is arrayed like a church, with the faithful in the pews and the pilots (churchmen?) up in the pulpit.  The chosen passengers really seem to be some kind of Elect, for their peers left behind immediately riot like hooligans to steal seats on the only ride off the planet.

Scientific details are curious, especially from the maker of the fastidiously accurate Destination Moon.  Eight months isn't long enough to design and perfect a pencil sharpener, but the Arkian engineers are able to research, design, build and test an incredibly advanced rocketship, as civilization crumbles around them, no less.  The (admittedly cool-looking) Space Ark is launched from a ramp that goes down into a valley before zooming up the next mountainside.  Since most of the momentum accrued on the down-slide would be lost taking the curve,  the Ark may as well have started from the bottom of the slide and not wasted the fuel.  Speaking of fuel, the fuel gauge on this super rocket is a simple indicator marked 'full', 'half' and 'empty'.  2

  Just what's being taken along on this joy ride is amusing as well. Domestic farm animals are brought on board literally two by two, Noah-style, as if a single pair of animals could restore a species. That applies to the paired-off sixteen or so couples who win the lottery to take the trip and presumably make babies for the future of mankind. Nowadays, it would seem obvious that if you could only take forty people, the best hope for mankind would be to make most of the human passengers female scientists, doctors and engineers - all extemely young and all fit to bear children. The male component of the passenger list might only be test tubes of sperm for later artificial insemination. Why waste cargo weight on a bunch of redundant drones, when you need all the breeder females you can get? Are we saving mankind here, or is there a sexual fantasy lurking behind all the bible talk? This kind of thinking would really make the Dr. Strangeloves and General Turgidsons of our present system lose some sleep!

The only preparation for arrival on Zyra is a crash landing, which is accomplished on a field of snow in the mountains.  Previous glimpses of the terrain show only ice and dense clouds for hundreds of miles.  Yet when the hatch is opened, the view awaiting the Arkians is that of a verdant paradise, complete with an inspirational sunset and unexplained (unless one takes into account the book After Worlds Collide  1 ) pyramid-like structures on the horizon.  Typical is the scene where the cocksure pilot throws open the airlock without first testing the atmosphere because, "It's the only place we can go!"

The dramatic and moral logic of When Worlds is just as thoughtlessly presented as its science.  Essential Ark personnel risk their lives, pointlessly taking supplies to flood survivors who are doomed anyway.  During the lottery for the 40 seats on the Ark, none of the young engineers and scientists offers the least objection when the head of the project arbitrarily reserves space for his daughter, her boyfriend, a kid rescued from a rooftop, and a stray dog!  The project leader also bends the rules to allow yet another lottery loser to take cuts in the line for the Ark, to stay with her boyfriend.  No wonder the losers are rioting!

The multimillionaire investor who bankrolls the Ark (John Hoyt) is refused his agreed-upon ticket to ride because he's a cynical malcontent.  How his riches made the Ark possible is a mystery, when a big point is made that, with the world ending, money no longer has any value.  A cripple restricted to a wheelchair, he prefigures Doctor Strangelove when the coming of doomsday unaccountably restores his ability to walk. Since the genial, gentle George Pal was serious about his Sunday school bible theme, this is clearly meant to be an apocalyptic miracle. You've got ten minutes to live, Mr. Moneybags, so go have yourself a stroll.

The impressive special effects wow'ed 'em in 1951, and can still spark imagination and wonder. The Space Ark is a beautiful silver rocket that looks great against the dramatic painted skies. The miniatures are reasonably well-photographed, and besides some poorly-scaled fire and smoke, most of the effects shots are breathtaking in Technicolor. The onrushing Bellus looming in the night sky is appropriately frightening. The destruction of the first passing of the rogue planets is somewhat limited in scope, to a fairly successful matte of water pouring into Manhattan, followed by several glimpses of just-passable paintings of ocean liners floating next to the Chrysler building, etc. The rest of the footage is made up of every volcano, flood, and earthquake stock shot in Technicolor that the producer could get his hands on, including bits from For Whom the Bell Tolls and Crash Dive!


Paramount's DVD of When Worlds Collide is reasonable but a little disappointing. As with War of the Worlds, the deluxe laserdisc of a few years back (with its isolated music track!) is still the better show. The image on this DVD is on the harsh side, with annoying fringing appearing against lines of strong contrast (green on my monitor,which I have to admit is getting less reliable for judging this sort of thing). A point of comparison is the crash landing on Zyra - on the laser, the wires used to pull the model of the Ark can be clearly seen after the ship comes to a standstill - but on the less distince DVD, they're invisible.

When Worlds Collide was a Technicolor movie, and it's obvious that going back to the three strips was not done; so what we're looking at is probably a file negative combined from the three strips a long time ago to make Eastmancolor prints, perhaps for the reissue back in 1975. The green fringing might be from color misregistration, but the expert I saw the disc with also suspected an overuse of image enhancement. The film-to-tape people cleaned up the changeover cues and removed dirt from the film, but also may have used digital enhancement too strongly - the frequent shots of newspaper headlines all have annoying contrast colors outlining what should be plain black letters on white. These will be less of a bother on smaller monitors, but on a big set, it looks like the television rabbit ears need tweaking.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
When Worlds Collide rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 5, 2001


Footnote:

1. It seems that George Pal did a temporary final shot for When Worlds Collide using a quick oil study for the final vista of Zyra.  He learned the lesson many a special effects vendor has learned: Paramount said, 'Looks great to us!' and ordered the cut locked.  That's why Collide ends with Zyra looking like a background in a Road Runner cartoon.  Pal had envisioned a vista combining a 3-D miniature and mattes,  like one of the planetscapes seen in the beginning of War of the Worlds.  The fact that the artist added After Worlds Collide- style pyramids shows the end painting was never meant to be used.  Nobody was planning a sequel film, as the final shot implies. Return

2. I stand corrected on my bad engineering skills here, and for repeating another author's criticism of When Worlds Collide without checking it out myself. The ramp going down and then up is not a bad idea because the fuel and power being used to accelerate the ship down the ramp is coming from the sled it rests on, not the ship itself. The rocket's engines aren't ignited until the the second, Up half of the rollercoaster ramp - the rocket is already going 100 mph or so when it's own engines come into use!
Return


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