When Worlds Collide (1951)
Directed by: Rudolph Maté
Starring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt
How about a bona fide Oscar winner? When Worlds Collide, produced by George Pal and directed by Rudolph Maté, who also made the classic noir D.O.A., won the special effects category at the 1952 Academy Awards. And there’s no doubt that the miniature work featured in the film’s climactic catastrophe sequence is the absolute highlight of this minor sci-fi classic.
The movie opens with some astronomers discovering that a star, Bellus, and its accompanying planet, Zyra, will pass through the solar system on a course that means Earth will be destroyed. Humanity’s only hope is to build arks in the form of starships to transport some humans to Zyra to continue civilization. When these findings are presented at the U.N. the scientists are ridiculed. Luckily enough they have some wealthy backers willing to sponsor the ark project. Most prominent among them is one Sydney Stanton who is an evil egotistical wheelchair-bound bastard who only cares about himself. He is also the most compelling character in the film.
We follow the building of the ark and the discussions about how to choose who skould go on the ark, and are treated to a somewhat lukewarm romantic triangle featuring a cool freelance pilot, a boring medical doctor and the pretty daughter of one of the leading scientists.
As Zyra finally passes close to Earth we’re treated to a montage of obvious but still very nice miniature-based effects sequences where giant waves flood the cities, electrical stations collapse and explode and huge fires erupt. The Earth takes quite a beating, and survivors can now only wait for the final blow being delivered a few days later when Bellus itself will come along to finish the job.
The workers manage to get the ark finished just in time. Only 40 people can go, and all the workers who have built the ship but will now be left behind start a riot. The lucky 40 (or 38, after the leading scientist sacrifices himself to make sure the evil wheelchair guy doesn’t get aboard) take off and reach Zyra. And yes, the air is just fine!
When Worlds Collide is in many ways a charming film, though quite dated in most ways. But the story is suitably over-the top and the script makes an effort to portray both the noble and ignoble sides of humanity, though it does so in a none too subtle way. The acting is somewhat wooden, but the cynical old bastard Sydney Stanton is fun. The main attraction, though, are the effects.
No masterpiece, but worthwile – especially at only 83 minutes.