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WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hanson, John Hoyt, Larry Keating
Director:  Rudolph Paté
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  82 Minutes
Release Date:  September 25, 2001

Film ***

The dawning of the nuclear age gave way to a new breed of science fiction film in the 1950’s…pessimistic visions of world destruction and human fallibility that held mirrors up to us as a race and suggested we shouldn’t like what we see.

One of the earliest, and still most noteworthy of these films, was When Worlds Collide, one of effects wizard George Pal’s noted productions.  Here was a story about another star hurtling across the cosmos for seemingly no other purpose than to wipe out our planet…and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

The story takes no time in getting started…we are spared the usual background stories and ham-handed attempts at character development.  By the same token, we are left with only two-dimensional talking heads to follow around for the duration.  None of them are particularly interesting…you may not even be able to name names when it’s all over with…but it doesn’t matter much.  The humans are there to push the plot along.  We need something to react to the catastrophe.

Like many science fiction films of the era, Worlds is heavy on fiction and light on science.  Anybody with a junior high level of science or better will snicker at some of the more glaring problems.  The math doesn’t add up, for example, when the scientists compute the speed of the star, the distance it has to travel, and what time they expect it to arrive.  Not to mention, as the inevitable climax approaches, you’ll wonder why the heat of a star wouldn’t have killed every living thing on the planet long before hitting it, or why an object as big as the star wouldn’t wreak worse havoc on the earth’s natural forces than it’s much smaller singular planet did some days earlier (in Oscar winning effects shots).

But that all has to be taken with a grain of salt.  The film is no educational set piece…in fact, the astronomy and physics of it are only an excuse to tell a basic human story:  what if we knew we had only a few months left?  The short running time doesn’t allow any really personal glimpses, or scenes of emotion, reconciliation, chaos…it paints its pictures in much broader strokes.  The concept the picture works around is that maybe 44 people on a densely populated planet might be saved, but with a lot of ifs.  If they can construct a rocket in time, if they can manage to land on the planet revolving around the doomsday star, if that planet can hold life, and if they can actually peaceably and fairly collect a specimen of humanity to preserve while the rest perish…all questions that will have to be answered while an unstoppable clock winds down.

Perhaps When Worlds Collide also stands apart for having a slight glimmer of hope at the end.  Our main characters step out into a strange new world that looks like a Disney cartoon, but maybe it’s a world of promise.  At least, as much promise as can be had on a planet circling a star that’s blistering through space at .8 kilometers per week.

For whatever reason you want to consider, the film remains an important and standout example of a genre that’s come back to life in recent years with pictures like Armageddon or Deep Impact.  Those films were inspired by the Shoemaker-Levy comet hitting Jupiter…every once in awhile, our eyes are opened to the fact of how cosmically mortal we all are, and movies like When Worlds Collide reflect it.

Video **1/2

For a fifty year old film, there aren’t many real complaints with this disc, transferred at the correct aspect ratio of 1.33:1.  There are aging signs, to be sure…a spot here, a blemish there, or in the case of lighter monochromatic scenes, a bit of running dinginess that causes some image flicker.  Generally, the colors are a bit muted, which for a Technicolor print, almost makes them more natural looking.  However, stronger colors like reds, greens and blues don’t seem to render to their full brightness.  From time to time, the images are a bit soft looking, with some more distinguishable grain…other times, the effect is more clear.  Fans should be placated overall…it’s just not going to be one of the best looking discs you own.

Audio **1/2

The original mono soundtrack is fairly effective, with some good dynamic range, but again, age shows from time to time with a dropout here or a bit of static there.  It’s fairly clean overall; but the one or two noticeable flaws merit mention.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

When Worlds Collide serves as a look back to a time when nuclear holocaust was becoming a real fear, and people questioned whether or not we were actually smart enough NOT to destroy ourselves.  It’s a classic science fiction film that dares to offer a glimmer of hope in the face of inevitable doom.