When Worlds Collide (1951) – Dir. Rudolph Mate (Part 1)

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Now, I’m a big fan of Science Fiction. Doing a quick, highly unscientific snap count, I’d say that about eighty percent of my contributions on this site are Science-Fiction-related in some way or another; I even personify Science Fiction by writing ‘Science Fiction’ instead of ‘science fiction’ – that’s how seriously I take it. I’m also very interested in ‘Classical’ Hollywood cinema – ‘Hollywood: The Early Years’ if you will – so it should be no surprise that I’m really into Classic Science Fiction; that is, Science Fiction films produced during or near the end of the ‘Classical’ era (naturally). In my own taxonomy, SF films released from the 1920s (the dawn of cinema as we recognise it) through until the mid-1980s are what I define as ‘Classic’; I often consider James Cameron’s Aliens in 1986 to be the end of the last phase of the ‘Classical’ era of SF production (with an honourable entry for Predator (1987) just sneaking in at the death). From this point on, the advent of computer-generated special effects fundamentally shifted the nature of the genre, changed its role and impact, and largely turned me off. (More on this sort of thing here).

In particular, I find Hollywood SF of the 1950s and 60s to be an intriguing window into the psyche of America –  this being a turbulent geo-political period fuelled by a volatile cocktail of post-war boldness and ‘Cold War’ paranoia, with the emergent civil rights polemic permeating the tapestry of the nation to boot. In short, the fast-emerging political, economic and military power of the 20th Century was findings its feet, but there were a multitude forces tugging it hither and thither as it did so. During this period, SF provided an apt mechanism for artists to tacitly explore a plethora of contentious and taboo ideas, tucked safely behind the smokescreen of novel, bizarre situations, scenarios and constructions. In this sense, I personally think the genre bears a great deal of scrutiny when viewed retrospectively and offers us an extraordinarily perspicuous window back into one of the most significant phases in modern history.

So with this reverence asserted, it gives me little pleasure when I have to concede that, despite any insightful socio-historical nuggets a classic SF text might offer up for consideration, it’s actually not a terribly good watch. When Worlds Collide, our focus here today, is a perfect example of such an unfortunate scenario: it presents a deliciously rich allegory of American society at the end of the 1940s, and features some strikingly pertinent SF tropes that borrowed from the canon of the genre and set a stage for things to come. Despite any of this, it’s difficult to see past the fact that as a stand-alone narrative – a discreet fictional work – it’s pretty lousy and pretty stupid. Despite winning an Academy Award for its technical effects (I’m no clairvoyant, but I dare say it may be a long time before we see another Oscar winner stumbling into The Valley of the Damned), its plot is holier than the Pope’s slippers, the characters are stripped barer than a buffet at a weight-loss support group’s annual conference, and the screenplay runs like a few pages were left on a train and no-one noticed until shooting was finished.

When Worlds Collide (or WWC, as I’ll refer to it hereon) was a project steered by SF mainstay George Pal, who would direct sixty films and produce thirty-four during his thirty year career – many of them within the broad SF/Horror/Adventure genre of the mid-century. Here, his part in the crime is that of the overseer, he leaving directing duties to proficient cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Mate – the latter having a career in cinema stretching way back to 1919. Pal himself oversaw a handful of key cinematic SF texts during the 50s and 60s – including Destination Moon (a technically adept adaptation of a Robert A. Heinlein story about a mission to, well, the moon), War of the Worlds (based on the H.G Wells classic, transposed to 1950s America) and The Time Machine (another Wells concept, this time though set in Victorian England and starring Australian [!] Rod Taylor in its lead role) – but he also shepherded a lot of rubbish into theatres (The Conquest of Space, Atlantis The Lost Continent and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao being three such examples). So, whilst Pal did some good work in the name of SF, we can’t trust him completely, and we are about to see some decisive evidence as to why. Anyway, with all this in-mind, let’s take a closer look at When Worlds Collide (And that almost rhymes).

As you might have ascertained from the less-than ambiguous title of the piece, When Worlds Collide is a narrative about worlds that are about to, erm, collide. Specifically, a new star and planet have been discovered that are hurtling towards Earth at an implausibly breathtaking speed, causing the human race to get a shifty on and do something about it. I’m going to conduct this review by narrating a watch-through of the film, followed by some comments, so this might get out of hand. Here we go:

Things start out promisingly enough: After some triumphantly sinister scoring accompanies the opening credits, a voice-over provides a brief, if largely superfluous, narration about the vastness of the universe, mankind’s insignificance, the stars etc, etc. It’s all very serious in tone, designed to instil gravitas, and I’m all for it. From here though, the film’s downhillishness begins apace, as some ultra-curt dialogue between three astronomers in an observatory alludes to celestial “bodies” travelling “a million miles in a week”, before we cut away to a few seconds of stock footage of a light aircraft in flight. Then it’s straight back into the observatory where we meet David Randall (Richard Derr), who has been recruited by the astronomers to deliver a package on a ‘no-questions-asked’ basis. Randall talks to Dr Bronson (Hayden Rorke) – who plays no further part in proceedings after this point – about where he needs to fly to, who he needs to deliver the package to and how much he’s getting paid. Lucky for us, we get to see him leaf through a few photos and count money. In a film not an hour and twenty minutes long, it’s difficult not to think that our time could be better spent elsewhere, and the slapdash hastiness of all this initial exposition is not encouraging.

"Hi Randall, I'm here to get the plot moving. Good luck with the whole planet collision thing."
“Hi Randall, I’m here to get the plot moving. Good luck with the whole planet collision thing.”

So our pilot Randall takes said package and, after some awkward flirting on an airplane flight – inserted just so we’re sure he’s a rugged heterosexual male you understand – he arrives in New York, where he’s intercepted by the film’s love interest – also known as Joyce Hendron (Barbara Rush). Joyce is the daughter of Noah, uh, I mean Dr Cole Hendron. Hendron (Larry Keating) it seems, is whom Randall needs to deliver his package to, so that was all rather convenient and coincidental that they ran into each other almost immediately at the airport. Randall and Joyce share some uncomfortable, contractually-required romantic glances in the back of a car before some more conversations take place (short, expository chunks of dialogue will, I warn, shape an inordinate volume of this film’s run-time): Randall meets Dr Tony Drake (Peter Hansen) – Joyce’s painfully uninteresting boyfriend – in the foyer of an office (I’m not trying to be purposefully vague here I assure you) and after a couple more minutes of non-plot-advancement, aside from a couple of heavy-handed portentous comments about the world ending or whatever, Randall is taken into an office rammed full of old white men in suits and an assortment of military uniforms (just to ensure the audience is in no doubt that this is important stuff coming up). The plot is moved on the length of a gnats stride as Hendron announces that Dr Bronson (who we met at the start at the observatory and whose name we don’t recall even ten minutes later) has discovered a new star. Good for him then. Roll credits. Oh wait, there’s more: Hendron exposits that Bronson has discovered a star – called Bellus (I beg your pardon?) – and a planetary body called Zyra. Terrific. What a day’s work for Bronson and the team.

Okay, so what I gathered from the next five minutes is this: Bellus (snigger) is going to squash the Earth because it is apparently on course for it, and Zyra is also on course for Earth, but it is not going to squash it… I think. (Embarrassingly, I’m a bit lost here already, what with all this constant explanation of the plot and all: I’m certain the writers didn’t sit down and read this back to themselves before the cameras rolled; it seems a bit overcomplicated for an adventure/SF film to me.) The main thing is though despite all of this, humanity is in deep trouble, and that’s about as much sense as we need to glean from it all. One other observation here: Randall the delivery man is in the room throughout this entire planet-and-star-set-to-squash-the-earth scene. Why would he be allowed to stay in a top secret meeting where the fate of the planet is outlined?! Come to think of it, who are all these other people?!

There’s some pointless filler for a few minutes as Randall and Joyce get a little closer at some ball or some such. This wouldn’t necessarily be pointless, it’s just that it is so clearly telegraphed that these two are going to end up an item, a visually impaired house plant could see it coming. We don’t need to waste our time with this tedious sideshow. Get on with the story – you know, the one about planets and stars crashing together!

A grainy stock establishing shot tells us we’re at the UN building in New York. Wow, this must be important then. Standing before a typically generic collection of ethnic stereotypes (all wearing various traditional robes, headwear etc and looking as visually diverse as possible– you know setup I mean), Hendron presents his findings (is he important enough to be addressing the UN?) There’s some haughty scoffing from the French delegate as Hendron explains that the Earth only has eight months remaining until it is to be squished quite badly. Hendron, apparently unperturbed by his naysayers, outlines his Noah’s Ark idea anyway. Curiously, this plan seems remarkably specific and well detailed, given, I assume, that these events are moving at hasty pace and could only have happened over the course of a couple of weeks at most. So either Hendron is a stunningly good bullshitter or he took a six month breather after receiving Bronson’s findings and went away to plan his big idea in peace, telling no-one in the meantime. That would make him complete dickhead, but at least it would provide this scene some logic. So anyway, Hendron’s boil-in-the-bag (or not) plan is to build a spaceship that can fly a small handful of people to land on Zyra, thus saving them from being squished along with the rest of the species. (So Zyra is the planet and it’s coming near Earth but not hitting it, whereas Bellus [stop it] is the star that’s going to… oh forget it.) Another delegate with a suitably complex academic title stands up and basically says that he knows better than Hendron and the world isn’t going to end at all. Laying into Hendron’s theories and research, he receives wild applause from the rest of the room as he finishes his tearing his opponent a new one. And that is that for you at the UN Hendron my boy. I have to say, everyone seems rather blasé about all of this so far. If Hendron has enough status and the credentials to be allowed to address the entire assembled UN in the first place, you would think they would be a little more balanced in their appreciation of his argument. This scene plays like the delegates just dragged him in off the street  to take the piss out of him – kind of like throwing cigarette nubs to a homeless man to incentivise him to dance.

Hendron waits pensively for the French-to-English translation for "Yankee Lunatic"
Hendron waits pensively for the French-to-English translation for “Yankee Lunatic”

So with that over we cut to a grainy establishing shot of the House of Congress. Hendron and his cronies, who seem to be nameless and purposeless but glued to his side for much of these early scenes, are heading out of the door, muttering something about how they’ve been ignored in there too (clearly this was too dull to actually show us, and that’s really saying something in this hitherto twenty-five minute collection of conversations). Luckily for Hendron, it abruptly transpires that his cronies are apparently some of the nation’s richest people, as they proceed to have a quick conversation which roughly translates to “No-one will listen to us, they’re all fools. We’ll build a rocket ourselves as we have the money anyway”. Well, that was a hefty old stroke of luck wasn’t it Hendron?!

Okay, wait a second: this, already, is a mind-blowingly stupid plot development. If they had the resources anyway, why were they faffing around at the UN and at Congress in the first place? Were they that desperate for a tax break? Given that time is so clearly of the essence (so we’re told), Hendron and his crew could have sped things up considerably by not dicking around for a week or so in all these pointless meetings. This scene has the narrative sophistication of a character walking down a street knowing that they need to find £100 to pay a gas bill and them immediately tripping over a suitcase full of money. Zero tension, zero conflict and zero drama. Great start WWC. Also, the sub-textual message here, as it goes, couldn’t be more to the foreground if it was posted up in 3D and fluorescent lights: free, private enterprise (Hendron’s rich mates) is good, the state (The UN and the US Government) is myopic, tired and bad. How’s that for a thick dose of ultra conservative politics with your shitty story?

After some more aimless padding with Joyce (after a promising start when we saw her doing some vaguely useful sciencey stuff, Joyce has been flattened into an absolutely valueless female construct already. In case I forget it later, by the end of the film, she’s reduced to serving sandwiches to the men as they build the space rocket  – smiling moronically whilst she does it) we meet Stanton (John Hoyt) – who is without doubt my favourite character in this mess.

Let’s be straight: I don’t like Stanton because he brings the text any credence, clarity or verisimilitude – no, I like Stanton because his characterisation is so stupidly garish, it really is a joy watch unfurl. So Stanton was already alluded to a minute ago when Hendron and the nameless money men were outside Congress. Here, they referred to needing some additional financial backing to top up their own pile of rocketship-building loot. This in itself was quite pointless as we never get the slightest indication of how much this project costs, so they may as well have said “blah blah blah” and then just wheeled Stanton in anyway in the next scene. And I do mean ‘wheeled in’, because Stanton is physically impaired and restricted to a wheelchair, for important plot reasons which I’m not telling you about yet. In fact, there’s an important reason immediately as, after being wheeled in (is that the correct expression?) by his assistant Ferris, he immediately chews the bloke out over nothing and tells him aggressively to leave. (My notes on this scene read “this Stanton looks like he means business” and I wasn’t wrong). So Stanton’s here to be the antagonist of sorts in this film (other than the massive celestial body whizzing toward the Earth to smash it of course) and the rub is clear: Stanton is a prick with a capital ‘P’, but Hendron needs his cash. This potentially interesting dynamic is largely wasted as this initial meeting plays out with some more turgid exposition about rockets and such, along with a load of really transparent villain-role-establishing comments by Stanton.

Stanton was unimpressed with Hendron's impromptu piece of expressionist dance in the middle of the office
Stanton was unimpressed with Hendron’s impromptu piece of expressionist dance in the middle of the office

Two other things of note here: firstly, we learn that Hendron’s project is already well up and running. When did this happen?! How much time has elapsed in this film so far? There was only eight months until the big smash at the beginning, and surely all of this would have taken months to get set-up? We haven’t witnessed any construction or anything, so when exactly are we? This is all getting very murky and messy already, and the structuring only deteriorates from here too, so I’m not going to labour the point at this early juncture. Just remember that I told you so.

Secondly, the emotional transition of the characters in this scene with Hendron and Stanton is absolutely hilarious. Hendron and Stanton move from downplayed, restrained discussion and terse debate on some ethical issues to unbridled, outright theatrics in about ninety seconds. You see, this is the problem with trying to force a two-and-a-half hour idea into an hour and twenty minutes – it’s like trying to stick your head up an exhaust pipe; all that comes of it is a horrible, horrible mess. Ideas have to be conveyed so speedily, and drama has to be built so swiftly, we end up with a bunch of ideas being explained and not shown, with requisite emotions crammed into impossibly small time-frames just to facilitate some dramatic tension. There’s just no way this conversation could get so pissy so quickly. I had remind myself after watching this scene that this is the first time this pair have met. Ever!

Anyway, on this awkward note, with characterisation and plot circling the drain, let’s take a hiatus. Tune in for part two shortly.

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