Saturday, 20 February 2016

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Another super-duper title once again, this time its actually from a science fiction novel of the same name from 1933 by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. I do like this movie poster design I must say, the title powerfully emblazoned across the top in striking yellow outlined by red, the image of, presumably, a planet crashing into the Earth with humans running in terror and skyscrapers toppling. It is of course daft because the object crashing into the Earth can't be an actual planet for obvious size related reasons, it looks more like a giant comet.

The movie is your common disaster flick basically and it plays out exactly as you would think. An astronomer in South Africa discovers a rogue star (Bellus) on a collision course with Earth, 8 months and counting. Luckily this star has a planet (Zyra) orbiting it that might serve as the human races new home. Zyra will swing past the Earth first before Bellus smashed into it. This information is top secret and is only discussed within the United Nations , the top brass. The plan is to build space arks around the world to save as many people as possible, unfortunately various smug astronomers poo-poo the findings and ignore it. So the men who brought this news to the UN decide to carry on with their ark anyway, getting funds from various wealthy folk for construction. As time passes it becomes clear that the predictions were correct and other nations around the world start to construct arks whilst trying to keep order. As time ticks away the rogue star Bellus draws ever closer, construction nears completion in the US but the problem of who gets to survive is a prickly one. At the same time the lone orbiting planet Zyra makes it pass-by causing massive destruction globally. Will everything be OK? will anyone survive?? tune in next week...

Yeah so you know what to expect here, I did, and it all made me smile from ear to ear. For starters, all the top scientific, astronomy type blokes are ageing fuddy-duddies with slick back hair, a tash and wearing brown suits (when they're not in long white lab coats of course), well almost all of them. But seriously, there literately isn't a single young face in the entire UN or anyone that has anything to do with science or astronomy, love it. Its also so charming to watch these guys fiddling around with their positively ancient technology. All gathering around some huge archaic device that looks like some kind of big grey box with a light in it, looking at, what appears to be hand drawn images of the incoming star, glorious! Now I'm no science expert, and I'm not any kind of astronomy or engineering expert either...really I'm not, but some of the dialog you hear here is classic stuff. Whether or not all that fuel to weight ratio dialog with number of persons on-board was accurate or not I don't know, but at least they address it right.

Naturally this is 1951 so technology, theories and knowledge is gonna be vastly different to that of the present day but I...I just can't help myself. Look at the space ark they build for Christ's sake, it looks like something from a Bugs Bunny/Marvin the Martian Looney tune, in fact, the more I think about it the more I think it is the same!  I also love the fact that this ark can only carry 40 people yet its so big, like say what?! You have hundreds of rubes working on this thing for gratis probably, and only 40 can be saved??!! And of that 40, at least five or six seats have already been taken by the main project leader, his daughter, her boyfriend, one bloke who funded it and some kid they rescued earlier! Laugh out loud! don't forget to reserve a seat for your drinking buddy and that chap you met down the pub on Wednesday.

So putting aside all the laughable yet endearing technology and the clear as day limitations that would arise (like everything!), lets look at the effects because after all this was an effects extravaganza for the time. Well in all honesty its all actually pretty good for such an old movie. Once Zyra flies by the Earth we get a long sequence of pure destruction showcasing the effects of the day. At first we see the main cast within a building as it gets hit by earthquake tremors which works well. The whole set is shaken quite ferociously with props falling apart, falling down from all angles and even bits of the roof coming down, heck you can clearly see the actors getting hit by debris. Basically they actually shook the entire set and really made things collapse, you could be forgiven for thinking they would have merely shaken the camera and had the actors act out the motions.

Following that is a nice sequence mainly involving models ranging from volcanoes erupting, bridges collapsing, what looks like an oil refinery going up in smoke, land crumbling away, electrical substations getting destroyed, buildings getting torn apart and swept away in floods and tidal waves etc...The models are of course very obvious by their scale and movements, the old problem of water giving the game away with many shots, nonetheless they are effective overall with the odd shot holding up somewhat. For the time I fully understand how impressive they must have been, the money shots of the movie, the moments to make an audience gasp in horror. One small sequence showing a tidal wave crashing through some already submerged skyscrapers was pretty impressive, water effect superimposed against real photographic footage by the looks of it, there is also use of some stock footage and matte paintings throughout.

All in all many of the sets and props are solid looking and quite authentic, for the time, I was generally impressed, clearly effort was put in here. At other times things did look cheesy as hell though not through lack of care and attention, more nativity of the era. For instance the arks interior is hilariously bad, for a start its absolutely huge! like a long warehouse...for 40 odd people, all the seats look flimsy and the control panel is simply a dashboard of chunky dials and nobs with a large monitor to view the exterior. There wasn't an actual cockpit for this thing, everyone is in the same section, the controls are merely elevated higher than everyone else. I must also question what everyone is wearing in the finale, they all appear to be wearing the same lace-up brown macs, or coats, whatever they are they look ridiculous...but at least they have hoods right, in case it rains.

The actual ending is another stupendous pile of hokey nonsense you just can't help but love it to pieces. The ark reaches Zyra (represented by a cartoonish non-matte painting) and successfully touches down after a rather dubious model spaceship sequence. Everyone is elated to be alive and finally safe on another planet, not a single thought or word about the fate of the Earth though, oh well who cares. Without a literal care in the world they whip open the ark landing ramp to see their new home, there is a mention about atmospheric dangers but...who cares! Amazingly and conveniently the atmosphere is breathable, plus there appears to be green grass, trees, water, plants and the temperature is seemingly perfect, hurrah! But wait, what about all the other ships from Earth? from other nations, did any of them make it? haven't seen or heard of any reports about anyone else on Earth (before and after take off) for quite some time now...ah well, who cares! We're all OK, the little boy is OK, the little doggie is OK and has had puppies apparently, the new alien world sun is shining, and I've got my gal on my arm, who cares about anything else.

As with almost all of these American 50's sci-fi flicks, they are totally a product of their time, they represent the fears and paranoias of the time and this is no different. Of course we all know this, any movie buff or connoisseur knows this, but I should point it out as I'm not taking the piss out of anger or frustration, but love and enjoyment. I do enjoy these hammy sci-fi's very much and this is one of the best in my opinion, mainly down to its bold plot, great characters and excellent effects. I should quickly point out that John Hoyt as the wheelchair-bound, Mr Burns-esque millionaire, Sydney Stanton, was an absolute hoot! needed more of this misery and his doormat assistant Ferris. Thoroughly engaging doomsday disaster movie that is quite faithful to the original source material, but lets itself down with glaring plot holes really. Quite poignant at times, but ultimately priceless with its outdated visions.