When Worlds Collide (1951) – Dir. Rudolph Mate (Part 3)

So we’re back for the final part: Randall is secretly looking forward to riding the spaceship and Joyce is looking forward to riding Randall.

And straight away, rather than cranking things up for the big finale, we’re just killing time as we have a short scene with Randall messing around with the controls on the rocket whilst talking to Drake, who now seems to want him horribly dead a bit less, which is good to see. This little exchange about nothing is really jarring when juxtaposed against the preceding montage which did its best to ensure we knew that time was running out FAST! Here, Randall looks like a man who is on a complimentary three week all-inclusive Caribbean Cruise and who is meeting the captain’s nineteen-year old catwalk-model daughter for twilight cocktails in the ‘Blue Lagoon’ Bar in about an hour. It really is all very odd, and, not surprisingly by this point, all utterly aimless.

There’s a thrown-together subplot amongst this little segment about a young couple who, owing to Henron’s survival squad selection policy, will be separated (one picked a ‘golden ticket’ in the life raffle, the other didn’t). It’s designed to induce some pathos, but this is futile given that we’ve just had a scene where that stupid kid got a place on no merit whatsoever. How can we sympathise or care about any of this anymore?

Now to one final in-a-room-with-Stanton-and-Hendron-talking scene: this one is like a leftovers wrap-up episode where we play out all the remaining stuff that the film hasn’t bothered to get round to yet. Stanton tells Hendron he’s brought a load of guns with him because he’s still convinced that the others on the site will mutiny when the time comes for lift-off. Whilst I appreciate Stanton’s continued solid grasp of expected rational human behaviour, all these folks waiting so late to kick off seems a bit daft. Anyway, Hendron contests this vehemently (some pacifistic sub-text gently lapping against the shores of the narrative here). There’s no way these people will rise up, he reckons, they’re good eggs etc, etc. Anyway, all of this is constructed just so that Hendron can deliver another instalment of the thinly-veiled religiously-laden morality message the film is working so hard to ensure gets across to us in the audience. After he’s done this, the young guy from the earlier subplot enters the room. He’s devastated because his girl hasn’t been chosen for the trip and he has, so he tells Hendron he’s handing back his golden ticket (or chip, or whatever it is). What a guy. Stanton, being the arse that he is, thinks this is a massive ‘win’ for the survival squad because him not going now means that they can avoid making any difficult decisions about what to sacrifice to ensure the ship makes weight. Yeah, so in order to ratchet up some form of delayed tension, this ‘weight’ sub-plot complication was introduced about ten minutes ago, but was really only a footnote. In the last two minutes it’s instantly come to the fore, and this late personnel withdrawal may have just helped the cause. Hendron is unhappy that Stanton’s initial thoughts are selfish, but again, it’s hard to disagree with his logic. As we reach the end, it’s hard not to conclude that Hendron’s entire characterisation is massively flawed: he oscillates between making solemn proclamations about sacrifice and then seeming seeks to do anything other than manage or overcome these dangerous realities. He has emerged as a hollow vehicle for vague, beige ideological values, full of contradictions and all-too egregious inconsistencies. To be honest, I’d rather side up with the shit Stanton all considered – he at least seems somewhat attuned to some form of pragmatism and evenness of thought.

The financier of 'When Worlds Collide' arrives on set with some questions for the producers
The financier of ‘When Worlds Collide’ arrives on set with some questions for the producers

What comes next is great (well, not great, but stupid, which in his film is great): Whilst Stanton and Hendron are bickering, Ferris, who you may not care to recall is Stanton’s assistant from earlier, suddenly pulls a gun on the other men! Picking up the chip that the young guy set on the table, he starts some wild-eyed rambling about how he’s demanding a place on the ship and raving about how much he hates Stanton (Stanton’s going on the trip though isn’t he? Does he not know this? Could be a bit awkward for him this as he’s basically insisting that he spends the rest of his life in very close proximity to this bloke he professes this hate for. Again, did anyone have a quick read through this screenplay at all before they got to the set?). As Hendron steps forward to try and diffuse the situation, Stanton pulls a gun and shoots Ferris dead! Then, he justifies this to Hendron as the reason why they need all those rifles. This is hurtling so far out of kilter with any sense of plot logic, it’s just fantastic. It’s like the director held his hands up and said “fuck it, chuck anything you like in now. We’re nearly at the end anyway.”

The band began to question their stylist's choice of matching outfits. And those deckchairs were most impractical
The band began to question their stylist’s choice of matching outfits. And those deckchairs were most impractical

Bit more padding for a couple of minutes, then it’s launch time. Amusingly, the passengers are all wearing these odd khaki raincoats with huge drawstrings around the neck – looking like members of a 90s Indie band. We cut away to a woefully belated mutiny scene. It seems a few of the men who’ve missed out on selection have located some of Stanton’s guns, and, having not been overly concerned before, have now decided that actually, being eviscerated probably isn’t the ideal outcome for them. So, looking like a group of 50s catalogue models (which they most likely were when they weren’t off earning a day rate of pay for appearing in some science film about a bloke in a wheelchair) they stand in a dormitory, waving rifles above their heads and shouting about how they don’t deserve to die (lads, you should’ve listened to me earlier. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you since that stuff with the weedy kid). One out-of-step fool perches on his bunk bed and reminds them that they all agreed to the lottery system and they should honour the system. Without really saying it in so many words, they tell him to fuck off and head outside toward the space ramp.

Seeing this mass of pissed-off folk heading their way, Hendron – who is with Stanton at the bottom of the ship’s entry ramp now (he and Stanton are never apart in this film, I swear) – elects to do one final, brave and altruistic thing: manually releasing the ship’s coupling (or something), he resigns himself and Stanton to Earth’s fate. I don’t need to tell you that Stanton doesn’t share Hendron’s alternative view of their future, but he’s up shit creek because… he’s in a wheelchair. Told you that came in to play later! Mouthing off about how much weight the ship is saving because of those two being absent, Hendron delivers this cracker: “the new world isn’t for us. It’s for the young.” With graceful poetic turn like that, the new world is going to be a sadder place without Hendron, that’s for sure.

The family weren't keen on the direction 'Songs of Praise' was taking lately
The family weren’t keen on the direction ‘Songs of Praise’ was taking lately

So the ship blasts off. The interior shots of the passengers go all shaky to let us know that they’re moving. Not much to say about this bit: shots of the ship in space, few explosions. Then, we see the ship land, with assured ease, on Zyra (that wasn’t too tough now was it? Could have just used a big pair of stepladders). The passengers and crew unbuckle themselves and begin congratulating one-another. They seem to be handling the decimation of their home planet and almost everyone they’ve ever met well, I’ll give them that. Without a moment’s thought as to whether there is a breathable atmosphere (come on now film, this is 1951 not 1921…), they pop open the ship’s doors and spill out onto a matte painting, I mean, the planet’s surface, as if they’re out for a day at the beach. Triumphant music blares. The end.

For once, they hadn't been mis-sold a hotel with a 'sea view'
For once, they hadn’t been mis-sold a hotel with a ‘sea view’

Phew. That was grim. Let’s try and unpick some of this shambles and get out of here at a decent hour.

The overriding problem with When Worlds Collide is that it tries to deal with a monumental, earth-shattering (literally) and incomprehensibly big idea without possessing anywhere near enough courage or vision to see it realised. Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about trivial, esoteric or insignificant plot threads or ideas here – WWC attempts to explore the annihilation of the entire human race.  It simply never has the bravery to show this in any meaningful way though, or with the ferocity and emotional devastation it would reasonably instil; instead, we get rushed glances at a single, tiny cluster of humanity, who by definition are largely isolated from the coming threat because of the escape-route they are engineering. The reactions of those working on the project whom are to be left behind are just not realistic, and this absence of tension or conflict sucks the oxygen out of the whole endeavour. These people are almost entirely voiceless (aside from a brief plot-thread that lasts about ninety seconds of screen time about the two young lovers being separated as one is chosen and not the other) and are painted as being utterly compliant and passive when abandoned to oblivion. A ludicrously staged eleventh hour ‘revolt’ by some of the workers has no impact on the plot or the audience because we’ve never met or got acquainted with these people. WWC just never seems to grasp the seismic subject-matter it is dealing with, and this sinks the text like a sack full of puppies. And that’s not nice.

Then there’s the persistent issue that the stakes just are not high enough. Hendron talks over and over (oh my god how he labours the same message) about how theoretical, dangerous, unlikely, unpredictable and doomed-for-certain-failure his ambitious rocket project likely is, but the narrative suggests it is anything but. We see impossibly huge sums of funding fall into place instantaneously and a gargantuan technical and engineering project shoot up in what I calculate is about three months (how long does it normally take to build a new sports stadium, bridge, motorway stretch or any other medium-to-large scale construction or civil engineering project? Years in some cases, that’s how long – and those are projects with often decades of accumulated knowledge and experience to draw from.) There isn’t a line of dialogue in the entire film about problems encountered during the financing, procurement or assembly of any number of the hitherto unimagined elements of Hendron’s project, yet the ship takes off first time with not even a hitch. Now I’m not going to savage WWC for this aspect of its narrative alone; I don’t mind fiction that demands the suspension of disbelief – I accept this as a necessary element of fiction – but this is stretching my generous spirit a little too far. My criticism here is that in a text of this nature, two key elements should be the cause of dramatic tension: firstly, the ‘human’ crisis and secondly, the ‘technical’ challenges posed against the time-limitations established. Either one of these done well would have been good, and exploring both would have made a potentially stunning SF work (read my review of The Death of Grass for an example of this done well here)

Then there’s the screenplay issues: there’s just too much story to tell here in a film that runs well under ninety minutes, and WWC fashions no happy method of cramming in unending chains of exposition in any other way than characters droning on to rooms of other people, or montages which feature some voice or other expositing away in the background. WWC is less a fictional narrative and more a plot synopsis of a fictional narrative that someone taped and edited together into highlights. So little physically transpires on-screen, it is a genuine surprise when we witness a character do something other than sit down and talk, stand up and talk or walk somewhere whilst talking.

And then there’s the overall feel and tone of the film, which just doesn’t sit well. WWC is just too coy, prissy and bashful to be a great SF film. It has a great idea underneath it (it’s excessive and wild, but it’s easy to forgive SF tropes for being a bit silly as that’s kind of the idea of the genre) but the execution is woeful. It comes across as a film that just wants to be safe, and that isn’t SF at its best. Added to this, the timescales and structure are ridiculous, the characters are non-existent beyond broad archetypes and, most damningly, WWC just isn’t entertaining. It has no real creation of suspense, any central conflict or ‘drama’ to speak of.  In many respects, WWC is SF at its absolute, distilled worst. It tries to tell a story about complex ideas without really involving its human protagonists. SF is at its finest when unfathomable and bizarre scientific ideas are used as a mechanism to drive a story – where it is used to put people in strange and unusual settings to see how they react. An SF narrative’s people must remain central, or the text quickly collapses into a series of explanations of technical ideas, and this is exactly how WWC falls.

The film’s dominant message is one of a conservative, pious and religiously orthodox America. It’s allegory of Noah’s Ark is scaffolded together with numerous references to ‘God’ and ‘The Lord’ and ends, fittingly, with the protagonists locating some approximation of Eden. Moreover, a distasteful capitalist sentiment underscores the text: it is private investors and their farsighted wisdom who enable Hendron to build his race-preserving rocket, whilst the U.N and U.S Government are discreetly identified by the text as being foolish, conceited and, as a result, destined for extinction. Despite Stanton’s overly-obvious establishment as an antagonist, the text needs his financial resources in order to move forward, solidifying his influence over what transpires. This message, along with the Christian subtext, leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth and whilst having little to do with the text’s failure as a piece of entertainment, they do mark WWC as a bastion of American pomposity during the early post-war years. I don’t know if all of this makes WWC a valuable work to reflect on from an artistic perspective. Perhaps it does, but I am sure of this: WWC is tedious and irksome shit that has dated about as well as milk.

When Worlds Collide, pick yourself out a spot down in The Valley of the Damned. Seek shade between eleven and three.

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