The classic sci-fi apocalyptic novel When Worlds Collide was written by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie and published in 1933. It was originally serialized in the magazine Blue Book. They also co-wrote the sequel After Worlds Collide.
When trying to decide which book and film adaptation to write about for this blogathon, of course I considered many great works of literature and their great-to-kind-of-great adaptations. While When Worlds Collide is not exactly great literature, it is without doubt a seminal and influential work. It’s probably the first of the “Earth struck by planet/meteor/comet” sub-genre of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction. It has been cited as having inspired Superman (which features escape from a planet about to destruct to another planet) and Flash Gordon (an athletic man, his girlfriend, and a scientist have adventures in space).
(The book Gladiator, authored only by Wylie, has also been cited as an inspiration for Superman.)
The novel is very much of its time in certain ways (for a later edition released during the 1950s, the authors updated some of the political and cultural changes since the story was first published). It’s clearly post-World War I, the space race has not taken place yet, Stalin and Mussolini are mentioned, and there is even a reference to Prohibition.
The basic premise of the story is astronomers discovering that two planets, the smaller orbiting the larger one, are headed on a collision path with Earth. In the book, the ominously-named organization The League of Last Days plans to build spaceships all around the world so some people can escape to the second planet, which will replace Earth in its orbit around the Sun.
The head of The League of Last Days is astrophysicist Cole Hendron, who makes the mission to escape the planet almost into a cult. His daughter (the hilariously on-the-nose-named Eve; for the movie version they were smart enough to change her name to Joyce) has been “trained” by her father. (In other words, she’s a scientist, too, but they didn’t want to use the word to describe a woman, I guess. To the film’s credit, they do call Joyce Hendron a scientist).
The hero in the book is Eve’s boyfriend Tony Drake, a stockbroker who is chosen by Hendron as his second-in-command. Tony is demoted in the movie—he’s made a doctor instead (which makes more sense) and, unlike in the books, he’s on the losing end of the story’s central love triangle.
The book opens with South African war veteran and pilot Dave Ransdell (changed to Randall in the movie) escorting some top-secret slides from an observatory to Hendron. He, too, is asked to join The League of Last Days and becomes involved in the rather tepid love triangle, which, luckily, is never that important to the story.
The characters endure the first effects from the approaching planets, the building of the spacecraft, the total breakdown of society after the first passing kills most of Earth’s population, and the escape on the spaceship.
Like I said, this isn’t great literature—there are many examples of classic sci-fi writers who were tremendous prose writers and storytellers, but I can’t say the same about Wylie and Balmer (for one thing, the dialogue is atrocious; every time I read it I want to take a red pencil and strike out every time the characters call each other by name, which is practically every sentence). But in a way it reminds me of the best of Michael Crichton’s work: DANG, that is one HELL of a compelling premise. There’s just something about a Great Venture tied to a time limit with mass destruction at the end of it. That’s enough to get me to pull out both books every few years for a re-read.
The movie also is not exactly a great achievement in sci-fi films, yet I have such tremendous affection for it I couldn’t resist picking it for the blogathon.
Producer George Pal planned to make it a big-budget film (and also eventually film the sequel) but sadly neither happened. (I think it’s high time someone film After Worlds Collide, because in my opinion, it’s the superior of the two books.) Director Rudolph Maté was forced to keep it to a smaller scale, and it shows in some substantial ways. Even so, the film still won the Best Special Effects Oscar. Now, of course, the special effects look crude and even quaint (almost to the point of reminding one of an Ed Wood movie) but there are some moments that still impress.
As in the book, Dave Randall (Richard Derr—the film was originally supposed to star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) delivers the slides from an observatory in South Africa that confirm the approaching the end of the world. He and Cole Hendron’s (Larry Keating) daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) instantly start flirting with each other, even though she has a sort-of fiancée, Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen).
In an apparent prediction of how politicians would one day react to climate change, Hendron is laughed out of the United Nations when he tries to get people to start building spaceships. In need of funding for his own spaceship, he asks industrialist Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) to contribute to the venture. Unlike the others contributing, Stanton insists on being preselected as one of the people to make the flight to the new planet.
A word about the Stanton character: he’s an extrapolation of a character who appears in only a couple of scenes in the novel, a man who arrives at Hendron’s encampment after money has ceased to have value and insisting on paying with millions of worthless bills so he can take the flight, only to be turned away.
In the movie, he’s a main character and one of my favorite examples of the asshole bazillionaire villain in movies. Hoyt is a pure hoot (sorry, couldn’t resist that) as a bitter, cynical, total garbage fire of a human being.
Over 600 people work in a mountain-top encampment to build a spaceship that can only carry about 50 people to the new world.
What could possibly go wrong?
(In the book, everyone who survives gets to go to the new planet because they build a second ship.)
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the first planet passes the Earth. Hendron predicts its effects will be felt at 1:00 in the afternoon. (Not 12:59, not 1:01, mind you, but 1:00 ON THE DOT.)
When it doesn’t happen on the dot, Stanton ridicules Hendron for being a crackpot. Of course, a few seconds later, mass destruction occurs.
This is where Maté had to be clever with the limited resources he had to work with. He shows most of it in the (incredibly unsafe) room the main characters wait out the earthquakes and other effects. Then he shows natural disasters happening around the world—fires, volcanos erupting, tidal waves, etc. Some of it, unfortunately, looks like stock footage. On the other hand, the descriptions of the destruction in the book are easily the best-written passages.
As the second planet fast approaches, Dave is in a funk because he doesn’t think he has a right to belong to the group of people preselected to go. Even though he and Tony have been scrapping about Joyce, Tony pretends that the pilot of the spaceship will likely not survive the trip and they need a back-up pilot. Dave is then happy to become a part of the journey. Tony consoles himself by becoming a surrogate dad to a little boy they rescued after the first passing.
As Stanton continually predicts, the people who are to be left behind turn into a savage mob that tries to stop the spaceship from leaving without them. At the last minute, Hendron stops Stanton (who is wheelchair bound) from boarding the ship and also stays behind himself, because he believes the new world isn’t for them.
The launch of the ship is one of the impressive special effects moments, as is the landing on the new planet. (Less impressive is the ship turning around in space, which is one of the Ed Wood-ish moments.)
The survivors disembark the spaceship—and here we come up against the saddest and pretty much only controversial element of the film. Famed space painter and illustrator, Chesley Bonestell drew the landscape that was supposed to make audiences gasp in awe at the beauty of the new planet. Unfortunately, budget constraints meant they had to use a color sketch, rather than a finished matte painting.
Oh, well. At least there’s a prize for arriving on a new planet—PUPPIES!