Classic movie memories: When Worlds Collide (1951) was the most influential asteroid movie of all time

When Worlds Collide 1951 marked the beginning of an apocalyptic cinematic tradition.

The end of the world has always been a big theme for Hollywood slam-bang movies. There are even precedents in the silent film era, such as The Last Days of Pompeii in 1913, while End of the World in 1931 was the first talkie to deal with the macabre subject. Since then there have been literally hundreds of attempts. The most popular genre since the 1950s has been the asteroid or meteor theme, perhaps because we can all see outer space and sometimes think about what might be hurtling our way. It’s apocalyptic!

The problem with asteroid movies is that they all have the same storyline. A huge boulder or worse is discovered on a collision course with Earth and scientists initially try to keep it a secret. With only a few days left, a few humans manage to escape in an attempt to start a new life “abroad”, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. The inevitability of this pattern can be traced to the 1951 production of When Worlds Collide which laid out the rules that would govern most – admittedly not all – asteroid images with only minor variations.

George Pal’s technicolor When Worlds Collide was laden with authoritative religious subtext. Even the prologue can’t help but tell us that the Old Testament predicted that mankind would go up in flames. While innocently delivering a packet of photographs to an observatory, a scientist discovers that a new star Bellus and its lone planet Zyra are on a collision course with our planet. In a few months, Zyra will pass close enough to cause tidal waves and earthquakes that will wipe out most of humanity. Two weeks later, the fiery Bellus will annihilate all that remains.

This image from When World Collide shows the destruction of New York City in the era before computer-generated graphics.

After checking and rechecking, the chief astronomer presents his findings to the United Nations where he mocks the court. It is only after the findings are confirmed by other astronomers and a mysterious orange-colored ball appears in the night sky that global panic sets in. The film focuses on efforts to build a rocket, in the United States of course, that will carry 44 lucky passengers. to Zyra moments before the destruction of Earth. Fortunately, Zyra has a climate similar to ours and plenty of oxygen. There they will start a new life in a 20e Century version of Noah’s Ark.

Aside from a few scenes of large-scale destruction, including the obliteration of New York by a tidal wave, the focus remains on the team building the rocket with little regard for the billions doomed around the world. The focus is on the lottery and the haggling of who will be saved (and who won’t) in the underground base where the rocket is assembled. Finally, the spacecraft manages to lift off and eventually lands on Zyra where bright morning sunshine and green fields await the newcomers. The last shots of the film wish them a pleasant stay.

When Worlds Collide launched a theme that has lasted to the present day. Seven years later there was the low budget The Day the Shy Exploded which, much like Quatermass, began with an American astronaut launched into space as part of an international effort to orbit a man around the moon . Something goes wrong and the rocket is left adrift in space with a fully activated nuclear reactor on board which unfortunately collides with a meteor shower. The resulting atomic explosion creates a magnetic field that brings small asteroids together to create a huge one heading our way.

The final scene from the 1998 film Deep Impact.

Together, these two films have virtually created dozens of other films, including A Fire in the Sky, Meteor, Asteroid, The Green Slime, Without Warning, Deep Impact, Armageddon and many more. In 2021 we had Don’t Look Up, starring DiCaprio, which sticks faithfully to the main theme of When Worlds Collide even though the former is both a comedy and a horror film, symbolizing that even the prospect of the end of the world must be embedded in the media ratings with a president interested only in re-election rather than solving a global crisis.

But there are two differences between the original and the 2021 successor. When World Collide has heavy religious symbolism, as the lucky survivors start a new life in a seemingly peaceful environment in space. Don’t Look Up has no obvious religious perspective, and the film ends with huge-beaked birds about to eat the unfortunate survivors as they exit their spaceship. The only advice given to passengers is that of the captain. “No matter what, don’t touch them!”

Earth is about to be wiped out in the latest asteroid movie Don’t Look Up.

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