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"Dr. Frye," says Dr. Hendron, "notice the position of these new bodies." "Yes," says Dr. Frye, "yes, I see."
on 19 April 2009
There was a time, long, long ago, when teachers taught their young students to crouch under their desks for protection if the Russians lobbed nuclear bombs into the town square. There was a time when kids would look at the marvelously detailed galactic paintings by Chesley Bonestell and rush to read more science fiction stories. There was a time when the human hand, not computers, created special effects in movies that made kids go "Wow!"
George Pal's When Worlds Collide, based on the science fiction novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, may seem dated to today's jaded crowds fed on computer-generated excess, but give your inner young teen a chance to enjoy this good movie. It's all about, of course, an attempt to save a remnant of humanity from oblivion by whisking them off in an untried rocket ship to a new planet.
Astronomers have determined that Bellus, a star a dozen times larger than our own, is hurtling through the cosmos directly at earth. Circling Bellus is a new planet, Zyra. This planet will sweep past Earth bringing cataclysmic disaster. Then Bellus, days later, will obliterate Earth. A small group of scientists plan to build a space ship that will leave Earth just before Bellus hits and travel to Zyra, which, it is calculated, will be captured by the sun's gravitational pull and settle in to an orbit similar to what Earth's was. The rocket will only be able to take 44 men and women, plus a selection of animals and plants. Humanity's skills, dedication, selflessness...and ruthless desperation...will be tested to the full.
Among the people we'll get to know are Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating), a wise scientist who heads the project and who sounds like an avuncular radio announcer; his daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), conflicted by her love for two men and evidently a recent graduate of the Ann Blythe School of Self-Consciously Gracious Acting; Dave Randall (Richard Derr), pilot, adventurer and a man who discovers he loves Joyce; Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), a man who also loves Joyce who must make a decision only he can make; and, best of all, Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), an immensely rich businessman, confined to a wheelchair, whose idea of humanity would make a pride of lions at feeding time look like pussycats. He will fund the project if he gets a seat on the ship. He also brings rifles along to the building site. "Your salvation doesn't interest me; mine does," he snarls at Dr. Hendron.
When Worlds Collide offers up two great pleasures. First, the story hums along. Except for a lull in the middle when we have to deal with the Joyce-Dave-Tony triangle, there are no slow or dull spots. Granted, building a rocket ship in the mountains may not seem exciting, but the movie establishes the rush to get it done before Bellus hits. We also get to deal with the disasters that occur when Zyra speeds by. Rudolf Mate, the director, keeps his foot on the accelerator.
The second and best pleasure comes from the model work of George Pal. With no computers to make improbable disasters mundane, Pal gives us meticulous handmade models and special photography that stops us in our tracks. Just the work on the huge rocket ship, poised at the top of a ramp that sweeps down into a valley and then up the side of a mountain, is enormously satisfying. Pal and his memorable models give us everything we could hope for: exploding volcanoes with white-hot lava moving right towards us, oceans roaring across the land, buildings crushed, Manhattan seriously awash, a dramatic send-off of the rocket ship, and a hopeful look at humanity's new planet, combining snow, green-carpeted hills and some unusually tall and weird flowers.
Sure, the acting and the actors are all B-movie quality. The brief angst of the three-way romance is small stuff by today's Jen-Brad-Angie standards. The optimistic science is sketchy at best. The movie now seems more than a little naive. Well, so what? It moves quickly, looks great and it sure beats crouching under your desk waiting to be incinerated.
There are no extras on the DVD. The video and audio are good.
To find out what happened after the landing on Zyra, you'll need to read Balmer and Wylie's After Worlds Collide. Pal planned to film it but couldn't get financing. Let's just say it involves evidence of an older civilization, plus the realization that...perhaps...more than one rocket ship was able to escape Earth's destruction. I've got a feeling that life won't be all milk and honey for our new Zyranians.