Revisiting Disaster Sci Fi ‘When Worlds Collide’ at 70

Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer

When there is discussion of 1950s Sci Fi films names like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet usually come up. But one of the films you don’t hear much about is 1951 Sci Fi disaster film When Worlds Collide. So with its 70th anniversary on November 22 (or November 15 according to some sources) I decided to check out for myself. And you know what? It was a pretty good watch.

Directed by Rudolph Maté and based on the 1933 novel of the same name by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie When Worlds Collide finds Earth facing imminent destruction by a rogue star called Bellus. The only hope for survival is a space ark being built to transport a small group of men and women to Bellus’s sole orbiting planet Zyra. With a world-ending SPOILER ALERT let’s break it down in three slices:

Slice #1 The End is Coming

Hold on tight sweetheart. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride

You can’t have an effective disaster movie (Sci Fi or otherwise) without characters the audience actually cares about. And WWC’s main cast is relatively likeable. Richard Derr is quite endearing as principled everyman pilot and audience surrogate David Randall. He has a warm chemistry with the lovely Barbara Rush who plays scientist Joyce Hendron, daughter of lead astronomer Dr Cole Hendron (Larry Keating). The love triangle involving David, Joyce and Joyce’s fiancé Dr Tony Drake (Peter Hansen) provides both the lighter moments and the heart of the story.

But the best character in the film is actually the villain, amoral wheelchair-bound business magnate Sydney Stanton. Played with acerbic brilliance by John Hoyt (from the failed Trek pilot “The Cage” and the Twilight Zone) this is one dude you are going to love to hate. Rude, condescending, entitled and narcissistic, Stanton embodies some of the worst qualities in all humanity. And the scene where he guns down his treacherous assistant is the most shocking in a film where the entire planet gets destroyed.

DR HENDRON: And the 44 men and women will be going on a sort of, Star Trek STANTON: ‘Star Trek?’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard

I thought the first couple of acts of the film did a good job of making the threat and the global impact feel real. I’m pretty sure the science is not going to win any Nobel Prizes but in this type of film scientific accuracy is not all that important to me. I’ve always been more a literature man, any way. I liked the scene in the United Nations when the other astronomer dismisses Hendron as headline-seeking crackpots. If something like this were to ever happen (God forbid) there would be doubters and naysayers.

Unfortunately as the film progressed the rest of the world falls by the wayside. I know they have to focus on the main story but the impact of billions just gets pushed aside. And with all the world’s resources you are telling me no other country (or group of countries) could come up with their own ship to Zyra? That’s a bit hard to swallow for me.

Slice #2 The Effects

Well I believe it all is coming to an end
Oh well, I guess, we’re gonna pretend,
Let’s see how far we’ve come
Let’s see how far we’ve come

The film’s special effects won an Honorary Academy Award for Special Effects and I can tell why. The opening visual effects of the words “When”, “Worlds” and “Collide” appearing and then being consumed in flames is impactful and sets the tone for the rest of the film. The model work showing the disasters caused by the appearance of Zyra is simply brilliant. The utter devastation is conveyed well and would love to see a behind the scenes of how they did it.

To infinity and beyond!

The sleek design of the ship is very 50s Sci Fi so nothing groundbreaking there. And the space flight effects are about what you would expect for the time. I must say I was disappointed that we didn’t see the Earth destroyed other than a quick flash of flame. In a film called When Worlds Collide I kinda wanna see, I dunno, the actual collision. I also thought the decision to render the environment of Zyra as a matte painting was not the best one. It’s a lovely painting but it looks like a painting and pulls the viewer out of the experience. I would have preferred an unearthly-looking location with some practical effects work for those pink plants or trees or whatever they were. But overall the effects work here is very solid.

Slice 3# The Loss

SPEAKER: And tonight our in-flight movie will be Baywatch ALL: Uggh!

What keeps WWC from being among the top tier 50s Sci Fi (for me at least) is how the film deals with loss, or rather, doesn’t deal with it. This is a film about the end of the world which is the ultimate tragedy. But WWC goes out of its way to avoid tragedy. David’s noble sacrifice is undermined by Tony’s machinations. Fine, Tony acts selfless and our lovebirds get to live on in paradise. But then the couple where the woman does not get picked for the ship still end up going together. Heck, even when poor Dr Hendron stays behind with a very unhappy Stanton Joyce practically forgets all about her father. Dang girl. That’s cold! Not to mention there is no mourning for all the poor souls lost when the Earth destroyed. Not even a moment of silence for them. Hard luck, I guess.

JOYCE: A whole new world
DAVID: That’s where we’ll be
JOYCE: A thrilling chase
DAVID: A wondrous place
DAVID AND JOYCE: For you and me

So despite its solid concept, memorable characters and some spectacular effects WWC just missed the mark of Sci Fi greatness. But you know what didn’t miss its mark? Bellus. Too soon?

Editor Jules’s Score: 7 out of 10

So what did you think of When Worlds Collide? And you can check out more ’50s Sci Fi content below:


Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.Advertisements