Monday, 2 November 2009

When Worlds Collide (1951)

When Worlds Collide was another of producer George Pal’s 1950s science fiction epics, filmed in Technicolor and picking up a best special effects Oscar. This time it’s the end of the world.

An astronomer has discovered that a star and its orbiting planet (named Zyra) are both hurtling towards the Earth. The planet will pass by, its gravity causing mass devastation through tidal eaves and earthquakes. That’s the good news.The bad news is that its accompanying sun will splatter our world completely. Of course the politicians and the other scientists won’t listen to him until it’s too late, but luckily private enterprise comes to the rescue and gives him the cash to build a giant rocket, a kind of Noah’s Ark (the movie is awash in clumsy biblical references) that will transport forty people to the new planet.

Of course no-one knows if Zyra has a breathable atmosphere, or any atmosphere at all for that matter, but the movie does not trouble itself with such annoying details. The forty lucky people will be selected by lot, except for a chosen few who will automatically be included in the crew (the scientist himself, his daughter, her ex-boyfriend, her new boyfriend and a rich wheelchair-bound businessman who is putting up most of the money). While the spaceship is being built the scientist’s daughter tries to decide which of her two admirers she wants to marry.

The constant biblical references are heavy-handed enough, but the romantic triangle is handled in an even more ham-fisted way. The characters are cardboard and the acting is uninteresting. The addition of some very saccharine sentimentality doesn’t help.

But a George Pal film is all about the special effects, and the model effects are well done. The spaceship is goofy but fun, and the launching ramp is pretty cool. The launch sequence is particularly well done. Unfortunately there’s a matte painting used at the end that is so awful that Ed Wood would have been embarrassed to use it, which rather spoils things.

The scenes of devastation are strangely muted, and although the movie runs for a mere 83 minutes the plot takes a long time to really get going. There was intended to be a sequel, based on the sequel to the original novel (dating from the early 30s) but it never happened.

Overall it’s probably the most disappointing of Pal’s sci-fi movies. It’s not the lack of modern special effects that is the problem (personally I prefer the model effects used in this film to the overblown CGI of contemporary sci-fi movies), it’s the lacklustre script and the absence of any characters with sufficient personality to make us actually care what happens to them. To me it doesn’t quite have the necessary qualities to succeed as an exercise in camp, and as a serious science fiction movie it just falls a little flat.

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