When Worlds Collide
When I heard someone was remaking this I just had to dust off my old LaserDisc and take a look at the original again. I am something of an authority on the book, (I say “something of,” because I’m no SF scholar), because a few years ago I wrote an introduction for a new Bison Books edition.
I learned a bit about one of the authors, Philip Wylie, and not very much about the other, Edwin Balmer. Being a truthful person, I pointed out that this classic SF book was much like many classic SF books: Badly written and wildly inaccurate, and in this case, racist as well. But lots of fun, if you get off on seeing planets hit each other and billions die. (Hell, who doesn’t?) There was a sequel, After Worlds Collide, and I’ve always thought that would make a good movie, too.
This George Pal production is surprisingly good, if you allow for the bad acting, stupid dialogue, turgid pacing, and other hallmarks of the 1950s B-movie. It’s actually only a B in the sense that there’s no “name” actors in it. In terms of production values, it was state-of-the-art for the time. There are very, very good glass shots of the space ship and the sky with the approaching planet.
There were eight people in the SFX department, a staggering number for that time. None of them were famous, but the art director was Hal Pereira, who won an Oscar for The Rose Tattoo and was nominated a couple dozen times. I assume he’s the one who had the wit to hire the great Chesley Bonestell to design the rocket. In case you don’t know of him … until we got actual pictures of other planets and spaceships and such, Bonestell was the man! He was God! I gazed for hours at his magazine covers, and the layouts in such prestigious places as Life magazine. They were always as accurate as the science of the time could possibly make them.
We all know that Hollywood always screws up SF books. Well, not this time. Partly it’s because the book is so bad, in some ways, that most changes would be for the better. But they are also pretty faithful to the main thrust of the story, only making a few changes here and there, sometimes to condense the story, sometimes for reasons known only to the producer. In the book the two planets on the way to destroying Earth were Bronson Alpha (Jupiter-sized) and Bronson Beta (Earthlike). Here they are Bellus and Zyra. I guess because they sound more eerie. In the book, there was a space of quite a few months between the first passing of the planets, when the tidal effects killed 90% of humanity, and the second passing. Here it is 18 days. But much of the planetary motions are reasonably accurate in book and movie.
A character has been added to play devil’s advocate. He’s Sidney Stanton, your basic bitter, angry, selfish prick in a wheelchair, who gives the money for building the spaceship just so he can salvage his own worthless ass. He’s the one who points out that when push comes to shove, people are going to want to get on this ship, which will only hold 44 people. Cole Hendron, the genius who is charge of everything (although he seems to do precious little) the idealist, doesn’t think that will happen. He thinks people are as idealistic as he is. Wrong! In the book, the rocket builders are protecting themselves from the mob of survivors outside; here, it is disaffected project workers who suddenly turn into psychos at the last second.
There’s a love triangle, an adorable little kid they rescue from a rooftop—while leaving millions of other kids to starve to death; go figure—and even a little dog … of which they bring only one! Er … Noah knew it takes two …
Then the ship blasts off (down a ramp and up into the air, in the absolute best rocket-launch scene ever filmed up to that time), and it’s a tossup as to whose science is the stupidest. I’m voting for Wylie and Balmer, who for some inexplicable reason built their ship with engines at both ends! Sure, you can’t put a rocket in reverse, like the screws of an ocean liner … but did you ever think of turning it around to decelerate? Duuuuuh …. And of course they completely misunderstand free-fall, having their crew become weightless when the gravitational pull of Zyra equals the pull of the Earth … but they were hardly the first ones to do that. As I keep telling non-SF writers: Handle it carefully, it has sharp edges. You might get hurt.
All in all, it’s still a pleasant experience to watch this. At least they tried.
Now, what about the re-make? I see it’s being produced by Steven Spielberg. Okay, he’s done a lot of SF, some of it actually good. Directed by Stephen Sommers. Who he? Ah, well … shit. He’s the man who wrote all those awful Mummy and Scorpion King movies. Yuck. And from the summary at the IMDb: “Alpha Centauri is on a collision course for Earth, and mass hysteria of biblical proportions breaks out in the streets.” Oh, great. Just the teeniest bit of research (which I’ve just done; took me five minutes) will tell you that “Alpha Centauri” is actually a triple star system. It’s about 4.3 light-years away. If it continues its current motion it will pass within 3.6 light-years of the sun. Whew! In astronomical terms, that’s damn close! … of course, this will happen in 29,700 A.D. … It’s difficult to imagine the forces needed to divert it toward the Earth, and the speed necessary to get it across four light years in any reasonable time. See, there’s an example of how, by changing only a few words in the script, you can go from at least plausible to plain stupid. What’s wrong with the original concept? Two planets, ripped from their star by a passing star, many millions of years ago. Could happen. Alpha Centauri, headed for Earth? Couldn’t. I’m sure the new film will be dazzling, but the fact is, it will be stupid at its core, and the 1951 version isn’t. That’s known as progress, I guess.