Tuesday, 28 August 2012

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Released in the same year that the Hydrogen Bomb was unveiled, the George Pal produced When Worlds Collide harks back to an age when science had finally found a potential way to realise the fiery apocalyptic visions that had long been a part of Christian mythology. Unfortunately, while the story may move at a breakneck pace, the script gets weighed down with turgid melodrama and flat characterisation, while the special effects look cheap and unconvincing.
A group of scientists find that Earth has just eight months until obliteration by a stray star called Bellus. There is no hope for the planet, but there may be a chance for humanity to survive, by building a rocket ship to fly to a planet orbiting the star. Dr Cole Hendron assembles a team that includes his daughter Joyce, her fiancĂ© Dr Tony Drake, and pilot David Randall.  However, with the clock ticking, the world's governments refusing to help, and the technology untested, will mankind's only hope make it to the new world?
Compared to other George Pal films such as Destination Moon, and War of the Worlds, the effects are disappointing, with some rather obvious miniatures and enough stock footage to make me think the budget was not exactly huge. The low point is the finale, where the survivors take their first steps onto their brave new world, a matte painting so cheap and badly drawn it looks like they are stepping out Song of the South style into a Disney cartoon.
The science of the film is way off (Earth would have been destroyed from the heat long before being hit by a star), but to linger on this is unfair, as it is, after all a film of Science FICTION. The science is just a McGuffin to establish the stakes of inevitable total annihilation, and set a timeframe to emphasise the urgency.
The real problem lies with the dull, two-dimensional characters, and their, at times, odd behaviour. The love triangle between Joyce, her dashing doctor fiancé and David Randall, never rises above mawkish soap opera, and sometimes feels as though it is as important to the characters as the impending destruction of the planet. There are also some questionable lapses in morality, in particular from Dr Hendron, who fixes the lottery for the 40 places on the ship so that not only his daughter and future son-in-law can get on board, but also a little orphan boy and a puppy dog. Weirder still, not one person raises any objections.
In fact, right up until the final moments, everyone is unbelievably civilised - and nobody ever stops to question the true horror of the complete destruction of billions of people and thousands of years of progress, culture and civilisation. Only once does a character allow their mask to slip, when we see David Randall in a nightclub looking at a dollar bill, and, realising that he cannot take it with him, decides to light a cigarette with it. It is a small subtle gesture, but one that shows he realises that every aspect of life that people know is about to be changed forever.
The only character to make any kind of impact is wheel-chair bound misanthropic millionaire Sydney Stanton who bankrolls the whole escape project. However, this is not done out of altruism - he is buying a seat on the only ride to survival. He is a selfish man with nothing but contempt for anyone but himself, and although the character rarely rises above pantomime villain, at least he provokes some sort of emotional reaction from the viewer, unlike the bland, emotionally repressed good guys.

Although made at the start of the Cold War, when Duck and Cover films and the Rise of the Eastern Bloc would have been on people’s minds, When Worlds Collide does not have the political symbolism of other 1950s Sci-Fi Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Red Planet Mars. The real underlying theme is the mix of science and religion but we get muddled messages about this. In case you have not picked up the parallels with the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood, it is repeatedly pointed out to you in a rather heavy-handed fashion. There is a quote from The Book of Genesis in the opening scene, a craft is built from scratch to take the chosen few to safety, and the livestock the refugees take with them are led in to the ship two by two. Meanwhile, a stern voice-over tells us that people are flocking back to church as the end approaches. However, this groundswell of faith does not do any of them any good, and it is only science that provides any hope of escape and survival.