A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 170 – When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide – August 17th, 2010

I had to take some Benadryl earlier today and it has totally knocked me on my rear, so we decided to look at the shortest end of our movies, time-wise. What with the whole space theme we’ve had going, we picked this. Neither of us have ever seen it! And yet the title alone makes me yearn for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I might have to break out the soundtrack later. Anyhow, this is one of those classic science fiction flicks I can’t believe I’ve somehow never seen. I’ve seen so many bad science fiction movies from this era I keep forgetting there are good ones MST3K hasn’t touched.

Of course, it is pretty riffable. I admit I spent a good portion of the movie making little jokes and comments. But then, that’s sort of second nature to me now. For all that I mocked the dialogue, and for all that some of the plot “twists” were pretty obvious, and for all that it is fairly dated, there was a lot to enjoy about the movie. I mean, I wasn’t watching this expecting iPads and Shakespeare, so it’s not like my hopes were dashed. Given the time period and all, this really is a good, well-made speculative fiction movie.

The basic premise is that astronomers have discovered that two newly discovered planets are headed straight for Earth. One, Zyra, will pass close by, affecting the tides and causing mass destruction. Then right on its heels will be Bellus, which will smash right into Earth, destroying it. Despite most of the world’s leaders thinking the astronomers are total nutjobs, a few men with money put up the funds to build a sort of spacefaring ark that will make an attempt to lift off from Earth and land on the still close by Zyra (which is conveniently very similar to Earth, or so they hope). The scientists recruit people from universities, the best and brightest of their fields, to help build the ship and prepare it with livestock, supplies, and of course microfilm of a couple of libraries worth of books (I like that touch, personally, even if it’s terribly impractical). They’ve only got room for forty people and those places will be determined by lottery just before launch.

There’s the requisite romantic couple, Joyce and Randall, and the requisite romantic difficulties – Joyce was engaged to Dr. Drake before meeting Randall, but with the end of the world nearing, finds herself unable to decide which man she wants to be with. There’s the requisite mean old man, Stanton, who put up a good deal of money to help build the ship but only if he was guaranteed a place on it. There’s a random kid and a random dog, and another young couple whom you know are doomed to not both make it onto the short list at the end. Like I said, the twists are not terribly twisty, and the movie doesn’t really have the heart to kick the sweet and innocent couple too hard.

One thing that did strike me, especially near the end, was how very cynical the movie was about humanity. The movie starts out with a quote from Genesis about God seeing that the earth is corrupt and destroying it. Of course, that’s part of the Ark story, so it’s fitting and all, given the plot of the movie. But sure enough, the movie is pretty frank about humanity being foolish and violent. Stanton might be the cranky old villain of the film, but when he says he knows people will riot when they realize they’re not on the short list, he’s right. People do riot. Then again, there’s not a whole lot of effort made in making the movie a true allegory of the Ark story. Or in making the people who end up on the ship the ones you really care about. They’re chosen randomly. There’s just as much chance that the guys who start the riot could have been on the ship as not. The only people on there who ever really show any selflessness or compassion are the young couple (spoiler!) and Dr. Drake. Otherwise it’s not so much a preservation of the best of humanity as it is a preservation of a random sampling of privileged white folks. But, well, the movie was made in 1951 and the book it was based on was written in 1933. Maybe this was supposed to be more of an allegory than I’m reading it as now.

Anyhow, regardless of the pastiness of the ship’s crew and the cynicism of the movie’s view of humanity as a whole, clearly we’re meant to really throw ourselves behind this effort to save some people. It’s interesting, seeing everyone band together at first, signing up for an enterprise that looks to me like joining a cult – living in cramped barracks in an underground bunker, working on an experimental space ship, all on the word of some scientists the world’s governments have derided as fools. But there’s a definite sense of camaraderie and teamwork. I guess in that sense these really are meant to be seen as good people, just good people who are still human and want to survive at the end.

I’m not going to bother talking about the science. It’s woefully outdated and while I hear there’s a remake in the works, they’ll have to really pile on the pseudo-science technobabble to make the plot work. The tension in the movie starts off coming from how little time there is between the discovery of Zyra and Bellus and when they’ll reach Earth. The introduction of the movie has to explain what observatories are. The computer they use isn’t even called a computer, and it’s a massive array of rods and gears. So no, I’m not going to get into the science. Speculative fiction is more fun when you take something sort of remotely plausible and posit that it really is going to happen, then explore the outcome. This story works on the same principle as something like Larry Niven’s Inconstant Moon (one of my favorite short stories ever). It’s not whether the science is right, it’s how the people in the story react to it. And I addressed that above. I like how this movie handles those reactions, even if they are a bit heavy handed at times. Overall, it’s a fun movie to watch, both for the outdated cheese and for the interesting allegorical look at humanity.

August 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide

August 17, 2010

When Worlds Collide

We continue our theme of celestial bodies today with the classic sci-fi adventure When Worlds Collide. This represents yet another movie that I bought on a whim in spite of never having seen it. I knew, of course, that it was a major milestone in science fiction, but I had only the most vague notion of what the movie was about.

What was odd for me was that my reaction was so colored by other films I’ve seen. In 1998 this movie was re-made as Deep Impact (one of two end-of-the-world-meteor movies that summer.) Only it wasn’t until I was watching this tonight that I realized that Deep Impact was a re-make. So I kept comparing the two movies in my head as I watched this, and had to keep reminding myself that THIS movie was the original and the other was the knock-off. The other movie I found myself comparing this one to was This Island Earth, which I have only ever seen in its MST3K form. This Island Earth came out four years after When Worlds Collide but it shares some of the same fifties technicolor sci-fi feel.

Just like in This Island Earth our hero today flies a plane. Only this time he’s no scientist (a major plot point in the movie.) He’s international courier and womanizer David Randall. Randall is tasked with bring to America a set of observations from an observatory in South Africa where a group of astronomers fear that they have discovered something dreadful. In America Randall meets Joyce Hendron, her fiance Tony Drake, and her father Cole Hendron. Joyce and Cole confirm the findings of the scientists in Africa: a pair of rogue planets are headed to Earth, and our planet is doomed.

There are a lot of plots here, all mixed up in this end of the world scenario. Dr. Hendron and his colleague Dr. Fry have a plan to build a rocket ship to bring some people from Earth to colonize the planet that is set to destroy our own. To do so he has to seek financial help, and ends up going cap in hand to the nasty industrialist Sydney Stanton, who eventually agrees to fund the expedition only so that he has a way to survive the coming apocalypse. Joyce unaccountably falls in love with David, which seems kind of odd (I guess he just has a kind of animal magnetism.) Then David actually turns out to be a reasonably nice guy, his earlier carousing and womanizing apparently having been cured by a desire to save some little part of humanity. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Tony, who also turns out to be a nice guy.

I was particularly impressed with the way that this movie attempts to be a little multi-cultural. Oh, sure, all of the lead characters and all of the technicians and scientists enlisted by Dr. Hendron to go to the new world are pasty white, but Hendron first brings his plea to the United Nations and there’s a lengthy scene where people of many races and languages debate the nature of the threat to Earth. Then as the apocalypse approaches we’re treated to news reel footage of the attempts to evacuate coastal cities accompanied by newspaper headlines in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese (I think.) For a movie made during the fifties at least there’s an acknowledgement that the rest of the world exists outside of the U.S.A.

The effects in this movie also stand out. I’ve seen a LOT of fifties sci-fi in my day, and this movie clearly had a budget to dwarf your average film of the day. There’s a couple very impressive sets for the rocket ship itself, as well as an absolute ton of great miniature work. You can clearly see the seeds of the work of Roland Emmerich here. (It’s not much of a leap from this movie to the ludicrously silly 2012.)

The movie also manages to work in some cool speculation on how people would react to such a disastrous event. The character of Mr. Burns, I mean Sydney Stanton, acts to represent the mercenary dog-eat-dog contrast to the self-sacrificing good-guys in the movie. (Note that near the end of this movie, as people are storming the spacecraft and panicking because they realize that they’re being left behind to die, there’s a considerable amount of material that Emmerich would blatantly steal for 2012.) The whole constructions and provisioning of the Arc is very quickly touched upon, but is interesting nonetheless. (Amanda was particularly pleased to see a large detail of women being put to work transferring selected books to microfilm for preservation in the new world.)

I do enjoy a good end-of-the-world movie, and this is the grand-daddy of them all. As such I’m really glad that I finally got a chance to sit down and watch it. I can easily state that its reputation as a classic and important part of the genre is well deserved.

August 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment