Before there was Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998), world destruction was done up in 1950s sci-fi style.
The rights to Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s 1932 doomsday novel When Worlds Collide belonged to Cecil B. DeMille for a time and languished on the shelves.
In 1950, producer George Pal got his hands on the project, and eager for a follow-up to Destination Moon (1950), Pal made sure it languished no more.
South American pilot David Randall flies to the States, armed with classified astronomical information that he is supposed to deliver to Dr Hendron. Lucky for him, Hendron’s sexy daughter Joyce brings him right to Daddy.
The super-secret documents, unfortunately, predict what Hendron has feared for quite some time – the end of the world is a-coming, thanks to a giant asteroid that’s on a collision course to Earth.
When the good doctor presents his hypothesis to a UN committee, he is roundly mocked. The only believers are from the private sector, led by wheelchair-bound millionaire Sydney Stanton. Stanton forks over enough money to fund Hendron’s survival plan: a huge space ark that will transport a small group of people to an inhabitable moon called Zyra.
Construction ensues. The giant spaceship is hammered out by a group of 600 young men and women, who toil away in hopes of being one of the Hendron’s lucky lottery winners – the prize being a seat on the ship when it finally takes off.
Alas, the asteroid does hit our fair planet, and we see various glimpses of world destruction (which helped win the film the Academy Award for Special Effects), including the flooding of New York City.
Hendron’s ship, packed up with the world’s great literature and forty lucky travellers, careens down a huge ski jump-type ramp (pictured at left) and takes off in the nick of time.
Takes off, however, sans a few familiar faces.
Do lovebirds Joyce and David make the cut? Or are they, in that most awful Titanic couple-separation tradition, to be tragically torn apart?
The narrative is shaky and the science even more so, but the special effects – notably the flooding of Times Square by a tidal wave – remain highly entertaining and manage to overcome the limitations of the acting and dialogue.
The worlds finally collide on a monitor screen, Earth flaming like Dante’s Inferno as it’s swallowed by the monolith-like star.
In the throes of 1950s Cold War paranoia, the notion of the end of the world wasn’t just a notion. It was an honest-to-goodness, keep-you-up-at-night fear.
Take the Cold War and mix it with Pal’s usual fire-and-brimstone, “The Second Coming Is Near” type of religious themes, and you have more than enough psychological context for this movie’s apocalyptic premise to really resonate.
Pal tried to no avail to get a sequel off the ground (lame pun intended), which would have been based on the novel’s sequel, After Worlds Collide.
Dr Tony Drake
Dr Cole Hendron
Dean George Frye
Alden ‘Stephen’ Chase
Dr Emery Bronson