While it may have won an Academy Award for its special effects, George Pal’s When Worlds Collide, one of the more ambitious of ’50s science fiction films, is arguably most memorable for its thoroughly jaundiced view of human nature. Such a grim attitude is so unusual in American films that Worlds cannot fail to entertain just because it has the guts to be gloomy. Even a somewhat unbelievable and forced happy ending cannot entirely eliminate the negativism of everything that has preceded it. The film is hardly profound, but it is mordantly perceptive.
When astronomers assemble what they believe to be proof that Earth is doomed to collide with an approaching planet, they go to the United Nations to share their findings. In realistically human fashion, their saturnine predictions are treated with a mixture of cynicism, hostility, professional envy and fractious parochialism. Later, when it is clear that the scientists were right, their plans to build a spaceship that will take a small number of best and brightest survivors to a moon orbiting the approaching world are able to proceed only when a disabled, embittered industrialist, Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt) puts up the money—if he is guaranteed a seat on the rocket. Stanton is treated as a necessary evil by the idealistic scientists, but his dark predictions of what to expect when the moment of truth comes are proven correct as those not selected to go on the interplanetary ark riot and try to take over the ship.
If most of the “science” in the story is hokum, the clear-eyed observation of human behavior is spot on, and the film’s chief virtue. That you don’t especially care what happens to any of the characters is all the more interesting in that there are several felicitous touches throughout. One of the more engaging occurs when the hero of the story, Dave Randall (Richard Derr) recognizes that his genes aren’t good enough to qualify him for a seat on the rocket. He gets to go only because of a sacrifice made by his rival-in-love, Tony Drake (Peter Hansen). It’s one of the few acts of generosity in the film, but it also demonstrates the reality that merit counts for nothing next to knowing the right person. (What about all those left behind without those happy connections?)
Worlds repeatedly deals with similarly tough questions and issues in a cool, level-headed way complemented by its military-functional visual style. The Technicolor cinematography and stripped-to-essentials decor are as measured and precise as the scientists’ calculations. The characters have just enough mixed motives and depth to offer a little more than their plot functions. (Tony’s good deed, for example, is partly in compensation for less than sterling behavior earlier.) Despite these behavioral hooks, however, it’s easy to come out of When Worlds Collide wondering if the end of humanity would really be such a tragedy.