At an astronomical observatory in South Africa a sobering fact has just been confirmed, but this news must be kept under wraps so as not to panic the general public. However, the information has to be transported to the United States where scientist Dr Hedron (Larry Keating) is keenly awaiting any progress. The man to deliver this is David Randall (Richard Derr), a pilot who is kept in the dark about the precise nature of what he is carrying in that small, black leather case until he reaches New York City. There he meets with Hedron's daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), and she lets slip something about the end of the world...
Although you'd just have to look at the title to see what was up, which was that there were a large planet and a larger star heading our way at incredible speed. When the film starts they are a "billion" miles away, but going so fast that within a year our world will be destroyed when one hits us, and that's quite some speed, another indication that the science here was not exactly on firm ground. The film had been based on a once-classic sci-fi novel of the same name by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie which Cecil B. DeMille had planned to film after a fashion in the nineteen-thirties; that project fell through, but producer George Pal knew an opportunity when he saw it and made this as a follow-up to his Destination Moon.
This was as big a hit, and even more so than the lunar exploration flick would prove influential on what would pass for a blockbuster for decades to come, namely rest a lot of the appeal on the special effects. But it was what you did with those effects which mattered, and Pal noticed early on that what audiences loved to see was mass destruction, and nothing less than the end of the world was a good place to start. You can theorise at great length on the reason for people fantasising about seeing their planet or society ravaged for each age that it emerges in; with the fifties, it was often tied to the possibility of the Cold War bringing about a new World War, and Pal certainly was forward thinking in that respect.
Although it was admittedly curious wishing away the globe would be so popular well into the twenty-first century as well, with advances in special effects and needing to do something fittingly spectacular with them meant that it was only too predictable that fictionally smashing up the landscape would be the end result. Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon, 2012, the list went on as moviegoers flocked to witness the devastation, but you could argue it was When Worlds Collide which set the ball rolling in the common consciousness - the effects here are of the highest standard 1951 could muster. The other result of this was perhaps not so impressive in that the human story was nothing less than cardboard and unconvincing.
As if it were more palatable to watch things get crushed and swept away if the characters depicted trying to escape from it would be as uncomplicated as possible, so it was here that David (Derr looked distractingly like Danny Kaye) and Joyce get into a love triangle with scientist Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), as if there were any doubt over how that would end up. More problematic to modern eyes was who was shown to be privileged enough to secure a ticket on the space rocket out of there, as the millionaire putting up the money (John Hoyt) is as obnoxious a man as you could imagine, and to underline that he's a wheelchair user, as if they were saying look how unsuitable he is for survival. As if that were not bad enough, all the survivors are white, Christian Americans; Pal made no secret of his middlebrow, conservative, religious leanings, but these days you would be wishing for more diversity. So visually, When Worlds Collide was great - but if it made you think at all, you wouldn't like its implications. Music by Leith Stevens.