This is another George Pal production, like The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine; hence, it isn’t to be dismissed as just another science fiction B-movie. While it isn’t as atmospheric as War of the Worlds, it’s a whole lot more consistent. It is, on the whole, a better film, but ironically less memorable.
It begins with people and is at its best when focused on individuals. The story is too big, too majestic, for its budget and its director. I was thinking it would have been a good movie for Cecil B. DeMille, and later discovered that DeMille had considered making it. But if not him, Pal was probably the best choice.
It isn’t that the special effects are bad. Some of them are very good. One, at the end, is not, unfortunately, but if that had been the only problem, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. No, the larger problem is that it never really convinces us that the world is ending, despite some good shots of waves and lava and the like.
But it does tell a decent story about a group of people building a spaceship, and the good special effects, like that spaceship resting on the rail that will guide it aloft, give it a real science-fictiony feel. It’s a movie undone by its scope, but drawn back together by its characters.
As adaptation, it’s not too bad. The only really dumb alteration has to do with one of the two bodies approaching Earth, the one destined to collide with Earth: this time it’s a star. It’s funny, but as I read the book, I was constantly assailed by questions of science that it seemed the authors had overlooked or ignored — only to discover, later in the story, that these were addressed. Maybe not to a scientist’s satisfaction, but well enough for me. But there’s a big difference between a planet the size of Neptune and a star. If a star entered our solar system, it wouldn’t be only the Earth that was changed beyond all recognition.
A more significant departure is the one having to do with the love triangle between Eve (here named Joyce), Tony, and David. These are the three who, in the book, may have to learn the value of sharing when, if they make it to the new world, propagation of the species becomes of paramount importance. None of that propagation nonsense finds its way into this 1951 production, of course. It is supplanted by romantic love and self-sacrifice.
Which didn’t bother me nearly so much as when self-sacrifice, in the book, is supplanted by greed and selfishness in the movie. This happens late in the story so I can’t say much about it, except that an attack by marauding hordes in the book is rendered obsolete here because of internal dissension. It kind of sours the whole idea of Mankind’s continued survival.
Because it lacks a signature scene that lasts in the memory (like the early eerie scenes after the “meteor” crash in War of the Worlds), this movie isn’t nearly as famous as other movies from the period. Yet it’s better than many of them, from beginning to end. It’s the cinematic equivalent of one of the characters in this and a thousand other movies who demonstrate that nice guys finish last. But nice guys have something to offer, often quite a lot, and When Worlds Collide is no exception. Recommended for science fiction fans.
(I say that the movie doesn’t have a memorable scene, but I’ve remembered it for decades because of a scene near the beginning in which pilot and ladies’ man David Randall makes out with a lovely stewardess. There’s just something about her….)