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When Worlds Collide (1951) - The End is Nigh!

Updated on December 7, 2016

Based on the 1933 novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, When Worlds Collide (1951) is an enjoyable disaster movie that has its basis in the pulps of the 1930s and a premise that today appears scientifically naïve.

Astronomers discover a star named Bellus is on a collision course with Earth. Dr. Hendron (Larry Keating) warns the delegates of the United Nations that our world has less than a year left before it is destroyed. . He pleads for the construction of space arks to transport a lucky few to Zyra, a planet orbiting Bellus that will pass very close to the Earth, in the hope that it might sustain life and save the human race from extinction.

However, the other world scientists scoff at his claims and reject his proposal. With no aid from the United Nations or the United States government, Dr. Hendron receives help from wealthy humanitarian friends. To finance the construction of a giant rocket, Hendron’s team is forced to turn to crippled self-centered industrialist Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt). A lottery is held to select 40 people to board the rocket and escape Earth’s doom.

As the planet Zyra nears Earth, huge tidal waves wreak devastation across the landscape and earthquakes rock the foundations of society, many are killed. The slow build up to this moment is well conceived by the Oscar winning special effects team and considerable use of stock footage, with erupting volcanoes, tidal waves and earthquakes. In one memorable scene a giant tidal wave devastates Times Square.

As the end approaches and the rocket is ready for takeoff, many of the lottery losers riot and try to force their way aboard. Dr. Hendron stays behind at the last moment, forcibly keeping the crippled industrialist from boarding in order to lighten the ship. In desperation Stanton gets up from his wheelchair and attempts to walk in a futile attempt to board the ship before it takes off.

The rocket blasts off and from space, the ship's tv monitor shows Earth colliding with Bellus.  Dr. Hendron's sacrifice proves crucial, as the ships fuel runs out too soon and the ship glides into a rough landing on Zyra. The passengers find the planet to be a lush and verdant paradise, much like Earth in a past era of human history. The remains of an alien civilization is seen rising above the distant horizon

Directed by Rudolph Mate and produced by George Pal, his second science fiction production after Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide is a tense and exciting piece of pulp science fiction, with a premise that now seems hopelessly outdated. A rogue planet zipping through our Solar System would need a stable orbit around a star if it was going to support human life.

Nevertheless, the special effects (except for the final shot of the surface of the new planet which is a not very convincing painting and actually looks like a backdrop to a Warner Bros cartoon) are pretty good and the actors keep the story moving throughout. There is an inherent sense of wonder to the film and it remains one of the more memorable SF movies of its era.

The critics wrote –

"After all preparations and a brief but horrendous display of terrestrial upheavals as the satellite planet brushes by—shown in "earth-shaking" Technicolor, which is the most lately advertised kind—the actual departure of the rocket and its arrival on a new and frozen world are largely anticlimactic. Except for a rustle of applause to salute a perfect pancake landing, the drowsy audience at the Globe, where the film opened yesterday, showed slight interest. Mr. Pal barely gets us out there, but this time he doesn't bring us back." (New York Times)

"Top honors for this inter-planetary fantasy rest with the cameramen and special effects technicians rather than the performances of the non-name cast. Process photograpy and optical illusions are done with an imaginativeness that vicariously sweeps the spectator into space. Producer Pal who evidently profited by his experience with "Destination Moon" wrapped "Worlds" with lush physical values." (Variety)

"Solid science fiction with a spectacular but not marvellous climax following seventy minutes of inept talk." (Halliwell)

"George Pal's production is better remembered for its apocalyptic special effects than for the perfunctory dialogue, but the gripping story keeps you watching." (Time Out)

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    • Johnathan L Groom profile image

      Johnathan L Groom 

      6 years ago from Bristol, CT

      nice bit-

      johnathan

    • Steve Lensman profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Lensman 

      7 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Cogerson. I wonder if that shot turns up in Destination Moon too?

      I heard they are remaking When Worlds Collide, possibly next year? With CG and 3D the end of the world will be eyepopping and the sound suitably deafening too. It'll have a hard time topping the effects in the Roland Emmerich film 2012 though, not a great film but the fx were state of the art.

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 

      7 years ago from Virginia

      Hey Steve.....another interesting hub on one of the better science fiction films to come of the 1950s.....do you know There is a shot toward the end of a group of people sitting around a country store listening to the radio. Among them the little boy and dog later rescued by helicopter. The same shot shows up in The War of the Worlds(trivia from IMDB)....which was one of your other hubs ....voted up....great job as always

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