When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide (1951)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Larry Keating
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Mention the name George Pal to any fan of classic science fiction and you’re sure to elicit a smile. The great producer and director was behind such crowd-pleasers as ’War of the Worlds’ and ’The Time Machine’ and every one of his films benefits from his uniquely humanistic approach to fantasy storytelling. But one of Pal’s finest achievements is also one of his most overlooked. Released in 1951, ’When Worlds Collide’ is full of all the charm and can-do enthusiasm that makes 1950s sci-fi so enjoyable. Produced by Pal and directed by Rudolph Maté, the film is a doomsday tale that nevertheless manages to remain hopeful and optimistic to the very end.

When astronomers in South Africa spot a rogue star and planet on a collision course with Earth, it’s up to suave aviator David Randall (Richard Derr) to deliver the proof to stateside scientists. Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) confirms the findings but is unable to convince the United Nations that the threat is real. But there are some wealthy individuals who are willing to fund the construction of escape rockets that will act as Noah’s Arks and carry people, livestock, and supplies to the onrushing planet of Zyra before its star Bellus pulverizes the Earth. But the big question is who will man these rockets, as they will be the only humans to survive the coming calamity. Actually, the big question is who will win over Dr. Hendron’s lovely daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), the dashing Randall or the down-to-earth Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hanson).

’When Worlds Collide’ is presented here in its original full screen format. While the video transfer certainly reflects the age of the film, on the whole the image is quite good. There is a grainy quality to the picture and it isn’t as sharp as I would have liked but this is surely as good as it gets. At least no heavy-handed edge enhancement was employed in an attempt to pretty-up the picture. Colors are fairly stable and only shift in those scenes where multiple film elements were used to create the new transfer. Black levels are similar in quality and remain solid for the most part. There are some minor blemishes evident throughout much of the film but none are terribly distracting. Overall, I was more than happy with the video presentation of this 50-year-old film.

Audio comes in both English and French <$DD,Dolby Digital> two-channel mono mixes. While there is very little dynamic range – and no real bass to speak of – the soundtrack does remain fairly clean throughout and never suffers from any undue harshness or distortion. Dialogue and sound effects are well balanced and clear and this is a fine-sounding mono mix, free of sibilance.

The only extra on the disc is the film’s original theatrical trailer, which stands as a perfect example of 1950s sci-fi hysteria marketing and is a warming, nostalgic experience to watch.

Taken purely at face value, ’When Worlds Collide’ may seem quite goofy to modern-day audiences. The science is flawed, the effects are dated (even though they did win an Academy Award in 1952), the performances are wooden, and the extremely short runtime of only 82 minutes makes it difficult to delve much into character development.

But it is these very same shortcomings that make the film such a fun ride for those able to just sit back and enjoy the show. Sure the science is hokey but I find that preferable to a film that tries too hard to make everything technically accurate and still fails to be believable or forgets about an engaging plot along the way. And the special effects work stands as some of the finest miniature and matte work around – even if it is glaringly obvious at times. As for the actors, a line of dialogue delivered with conviction and not a hint of irony is something that is seldom seen these days in end-of-the-world flicks. Finally, the fact that the film is fairly short prevents the story from wandering too far off course and even the love triangle aspect is folded nicely into the main plot.

’When Worlds Collide’ is a wonderful film and Paramount Home Video’s new DVD offers up a fine technical package, although it should be a punishable crime to release a George Pal film without any extras. So much can be said about the man and his films that not educating people about this master of classic cinema and his work, is hard to excuse. As previously mentioned, the film is quite dated and I can’t imagine someone who isn’t a fan of vintage sci-fi getting much enjoyment from the show. But for those who rabidly pour over each week’s TV listings hoping against hope to find some forgotten gem, this new DVD release is a real treasure.