When Worlds Collide (1951) – Dir. Rudolph Mate (Part 2)

Welcome back. Henron’s getting ready to play with his rocket (ahem) and Earth is soon to resemble galactic guacamole, so let’s get on with this farce.

With the plot grinding forward at a miserable (yet highly illogical) pace, next, we’re treated to some more exposition as a group of engineers are briefed about the technical details of the rocket launch… by Randall! How is he climbing the command ladder so quickly here? He’s only been on the scene for about ten minutes and he’s training the experts?! Does he have pictures of Hendron in a tutu attending a communist rally? Is he carrying his bag for him or buffing his shoes during his twilight hours? (Better not let him find about what he’s doing with Joyce I expect then after his finished buffing those shoes). This is just lunacy.

For those anticipating a similar global catastrophe as the one posited by WWC and who wish to follow in ol’ Hendron’s footsteps, the rocket, we are told, will launch on a huge ramp that flings the ship into space. Again, I’ve no quibble with daft SF concepts like this, but this kind of engineering feat would have taken years to design, test and fabricate. I don’t know how long is meant to be left until it’s cake-in-trousers time, but as a guess, given what has already transpired, this entire project must have been achieved in only weeks! Weeks I tells ya! That, or Hendron really has been secretly planning all this for years, which would just be a bit odd quite frankly.

The class didn't think much of this week's homework assignment
The class didn’t think much of this week’s homework assignment

And then there’s this: in passing, fucking Randall the brown-nose mentions to the massed engineers that other ships just like theirs are being prepared around the world at that very moment. This comment, quite frankly, exploded my brain when I heard it and I actually skipped back to listen again to check I hadn’t imagined it. We never hear anything else about these other ships again, nor do we see them at the denouement of the film when the Earth goes pop. What happened? Did they lack Hendron’s convenient supply of Croesus-rich buddies? Or maybe they declined to pursue the venture because Randall was busy. Whatever the case, this is extraordinarily messy writing. Why drop this information in now? In fact, why drop it in at all?! It merely introduces unneeded plot threads that dangle uneasily from the text’s already frayed tapestry and, moreover, diminishes the impact of what Hendron is trying to achieve – making it look less risky, less brave and less of a superhuman feat. All that these lines have served to accomplish is the dismantling of the text’s already shaky central concept that Hendron’s team are humanity’s only hope.

Following this unfettered madness, we move into some montage work where various details of the project are explained, all of which I don’t see the point of covering because it’s really just filler and none of it will shape the film’s course. There’s a nice matte-painting of the rocket on the space ramp which looks decent, followed by shots of people arriving at the launch site. And by the way, I know I’m labouring this point, but there’s absolutely no way all of this has been put together in a few weeks. What we see here is a fully-fledged, living, breathing, bustling camp reminiscent of a huge army base in full-swing: there are people running back and forth busily, public address announcers calling out more exposition, machines rumbling, vehicles criss-crossing with supplies and the like; there’s no hint that this is a ramshackle and desperate venture initiated on the run – and it is this absence precisely that is absolutely killing this text: it’s all just too sterile, too convenient and too safe. Our protagonists are seemingly moving from A to B to C with barely a hiccup or a stutter en route, and this, need I remind you, is meant to be a story about a short countdown to the end of humanity’s existence.

The Health & Safety manager had grave concerns over the insurance implications of the park's latest attraction
The Health & Safety manager had grave concerns over the insurance implications of the park’s latest attraction

We get some more montages of people collating and storing important books on microfilm – the Bible included of course for this is America in the early 1950 s– before yet another cutaway to Joyce being dull. This time she enters a room, gives her former boyfriend Dr Drake (who sounds like a rapper by the way) the cold shoulder. So what has he done wrong all of a sudden? Looked at precious Randall the bloody bootlick? Anyway, she does this and leaves. And that’s it. As I said: dull. We’re desperate to utilise already diminishing runtime and we get that for a minute and a half. Cheers.

And then it’s on with the exposition: so Hendron and Dr Frye (Stephen Chase) are standing around with a bunch of schematics and whatnot, just for a bit of variety in this film’s collection of techno-doohickery scenes, when Stanton is wheeled in. Stanton informs Hendron (and, most importantly the viewer) that apparently all the other scientists who were taking the piss earlier at the UN now agree completely with Hendron and his visionary thinking: the world will in fact end and everyone agrees on it. That’s a nice bit of news for Hendron then at least. Stanton, amping up his maniacal glare once more, seems rather pleased with himself about all this too, seeing as he appears to have backed a winner and all that. More exposition arrives swiftly as Hendron says that the world’s governments will inform the population “tomorrow” about the fact that everyone is buggered. I’m not sure how Hendron finds out about all of this stuff ahead of time, especially as Stanton has only just told him that the scientific world’s consensus has shifted toward agreeing with him. But it doesn’t matter really I suppose; as long as the film avoids showing us anything taking place in the world outside of this very small sphere of activity, we’re all set to continue in sublime, ignorant bliss.

Dr Frye turned away from his fellow actors and imagined a world of high quality SF films full of tension and action, and tits.
Dr Frye turned away from his fellow actors and imagined a world of high quality SF films full of tension and action, and tits.

So this is largely dross so far, but the most heinous crimes of this scene are to come: Supplementing his statement about governments informing the planet’s population, Hendron basically opines that he doesn’t think there will be any problems when the announcement is made and that aside from one or two trouble-makers, everyone will just accept things calmly and do as they’re told (which is presumably to die quietly somewhere). This is just so myopic, ridiculous and downright offensive that it can’t even be passed off as some sort of character defect on Hendron’s part; sadly, it’s a much bigger and nastier problem than that. No, there’s something deeply, deeply flawed about this entire fictional work and the ideology underpinning it, and I think we’re edging closer to understanding what it is, so stick with me. I really like Stanton here again though, as he immediately chews out Hendron for his naivety and accuses him of being detached from reality. Stanton is acutely suspicious of human nature and expects that there’ll be carnage when the population of the planet gets told they’re about to be obliterated. I know who I’m with on this one.

But do you know what? Stanton’s a fool and so am I, because after some snippets of the president speaking over the radio (we don’t actually see the president you understand. No, that would be too dramatic; instead we just see people at the launch site listening to him), the next sequence is another montage (well not quite the next, but the actual next sequence is another instalment in the Joyce/Randall saga where Randall tells Joyce he’s not applying for a place amongst the group who are to be blasted off in the good ship Survival, and I don’t care). In this eight-hundredth montage of the film, the opening narrator returns to blot his copybook, describing in very conveniently vague terms how the population of the planet evacuated its great cities etc, etc. There’s more grainy black-and-white stock footage of people walking and praying and suchlike, to try and wedge in a bit of context – which it doesn’t succeed in doing at all. So the net result is this: it looks like Hendron was bang on the money after all: nobody on Earth was that bothered about the news that they are a few weeks from complete and total annihilation!

You see, this is about the point where I gave up on When Worlds Collide. During this ten minute sequence, it becomes patently obvious that director Mate and producer Pal don’t have any real interest in telling this story in the way it demands to be told. By skimming over this aspect of the narrative (the consequences to humanity of being met with our mortality) they confirm their intentions to shy away from the difficult and powerful story in favour of the one that was easier to tell – the one about a small group of people who seem to exist in a vacuum far removed from reality and not the one about an entire civilisation facing its nadir. Further, the lurking conservatism of the text rears its head again here as Earth’s citizens are portrayed broadly as utterly compliant, faceless and passive automatons. I know this is 1951 and not 1971 or 1981, but the idea that the entirety of the planet would accept and transition so meekly in the face of apocalypse is either incredibly ignorant and lazy writing or incredibly narrow-minded and ideologically-blinkered writing. Take your pick – the product is a fictional text with the emotional clout of a credit-card statement.

So with it becoming clear that When Worlds Collide is content to be idle and feeble, we move into another scene of people talking. Now, we’ve reached the date when, as the saying goes, “shit gets real”: Bellus (this is your final warning) is here! Hendron, Joyce, Frye, Stanton, Randall that snake in the grass, and a few other worthless background characters stand in some sort of bunker, waiting for the Earth to be hit. (I’ll confess again here that I’m not entirely apprised of the plot with regards to this: so Bellus is hitting the Earth but they’re all still there? Weren’t they leaving, because of, you know, the big squish? I vaguely remember Hendron mentioning something about a two-stage hit, so I guess this is part one. Or whatever. Why is this so complicated anyway?). We see the room shaking and things falling down as the carnage begins, but not before Stanton has another great little opportunity to look a prick. When the exact second that Hendron predicted Bellus would impact comes and goes without any massacre ensuing, Stanton launches a hilariously premature attack on him, decrying his project, his theories and basically calling him a complete son of a bitch. Then (surprise) the mayhem begins.

There’s some really nice model work of volcanoes erupting, dams collapsing and general pandemonium occurring (for a film barely out of the 40s, the effects work in this film is great and the Oscar was well deserved). Then we get a rare action sequence as a crane falls at the launch site and crushes (off screen) some people we’re not interested in. So much for that then.

Growing annoyed at his companion's wandering hands in their tight cockpit, the pilot decided to end the other man's flight early
Growing annoyed at his companion’s wandering hands in their tight cockpit, the pilot decided to end the other man’s flight early

Now, this next bit is weird: we see Randall aboard a helicopter with his love rival Dr Drake en-route to drop some medical supplies somewhere (huh? So they’re a humanitarian organisation now? I thought they were focused on building this spaceship. Does Stanton know his evil money is being used this way?) Flying over a submerged New York City, the pair find some kid on the roof of a house and Randall, being the film’s hero of sorts, leaps off to rescue him. After moving the helicopter away momentarily and considering leaving the two to die (!), Drake decides to go back for Randall and the kid. Where the hell did all this come from?! I mean, I imagine Drake was a bit miffed at having Randall snatch his lady, but this is a huge escalation from nowhere! It’s an incredibly dark little turn for a text which has done it’s damnedest to play nice up to this point. I was going to write a bit more about this, but I think I’ll just leave the whole strange, sorry sequence here to be honest and move on. None of it makes any sense and I’ve no desire to try and find any amongst the debris.

Moving ahead, this next scene is an absolute cracker. Now we’re in a big room with people talking, as opposed to the generally smaller rooms that we’ve seen people talking in so far. I’m suitably excited. Hendron is addressing what I have to guess is the consolidated workforce of his huge slave army, erm, I mean, construction team. He explains to them how the system for selecting the few chosen survivors is going to work, and it turns out that it is some absurdly overcomplicated process involving drawing chips from a box and other stuff. I reckon Hendron and Frye spent as much time devising this process as the whole space ramp thing. Before this though, Hendron announces that a number of places on the only flight from extinction have already been allocated – or pre-booked if you prefer the modern parlance. He says this like it’s a flawless, unshakable axiom that no-one would ever question, let alone contest: himself, Joyce, Frye, Stanton and Randall (phew) are all safely booked onboard in first class and will be enjoying fillet mignon followed by maple syrup and pecan steamed pudding, he says (well, except the first class bit).

Then, he announces that the fucking kid they just dragged off a building is also on the plane! I’m running out of ways to articulate my incredulity, so I’ll try and break this down concisely: this weasely kid who looks about ten years old and borderline malnourished has been given a golden ticket. Just like that. What’s he done to deserve this? Why aren’t all the folks who’ve spent months building the fucking rocket raising havoc? Why aren’t they tearing Hendron apart with their bare hands and pissing on his corpse?! This is ludicrous! How did the film-makers expect the audience to ever think this was a sentimental and ‘touching’ moment? What about all the other kids of the adults who’ve been working at the launch site? Oh, those mugs; well they can just piss off and die quietly just like how everyone else on Earth is so happy to do! This is all just extraordinary. Not only is this decision from Hendron abhorrently unfair, it’s not even an efficient use of resources. Hendron has been banging on in scene after scene about fuel, efficiency and scarce resources etc, and now he gives a seat on the last ride out the species’ existence to some weakling kid with a gormless expression!? Wouldn’t it better to take a virile male in his physical prime, another doctor, a teacher, a scientist (actually no, there’s enough of them already), a great artist, a healthy, fertile woman? Nah, we’ll be having none of that ‘logic’ nonsense here; let’s take a child who nobody knows anything about, as he’s only been in the picture two minutes. Let’s take him, definitely. He won’t be able to do anything practical or useful when we get there and he could have cancer and get sick as soon as we reach Zyra. Even better, he could be carrying any kind of contagion which infects the entire party. He’s definitely in. Meeting adjourned. Hendron is the patriarchal autocrat here and he’s made a ruling. At the end of his announcement and explanation as to how the selection process will work, Hendron asks the room if the plan is satisfactory. There is total, passive silence. When Worlds Collide, I’m done with you. Pack a suitcase and leave your key on the table by the door.

There’s a bunch of further exposition following this about fuel and weight just for good measure; I’m convinced that the writers kept up with this shtick as they thought it was lending the narrative credence. They were quite wrong.  Credence has already packed its tent up, jumped in the car and is halfway up the motorway looking forward to a hot shower and watching Coronation Street later on.

A short, pointless scene where Randall outlines his sense of guilt at being selected follows. It’s pointless because by this stage it is clear that he’s with us ‘til the bitter end and it’s been this way for quite some time now.

Now let’s have a quick quiz. What do you think the next sequence will consist of:

  1. a car chase
  2. a shoot-out
  3. a tense scene in which the text’s protagonists must complete a complex task against some form of obstacle or time-constraint
  4. A fucking montage

Readers guessing ‘d’ have clearly been paying attention and win a tour of the space ramp in Stanton’s wheelchair. So yes, we get a montage of people running around the launch site doing generally important-but-non-specific last minute jobs whilst some intrusive voice over the public address system shouts about how little time is left before takeoff. Whaaa! I wonder if they’ll make it?!

On that cliff-hanger, it’s time for another break. Tune back in next time for the gripping finale.

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