Classic Movies Remembered: When Worlds Collide (1951) was the most influential asteroid movie ever

When Worlds Collide 1951 was the start of an apocalyptic movie tradition.

The end of the world has always been a great theme for slam-bang Hollywood movies. There are even precedents in the era of silent movies, such as the 1913 Last Days of Pompeii, whilst 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 ponder what could be hurtling towards us. It’s apocalyptic!

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

George Pal’s technicolor When Worlds Collide was loaded with a heavy-handed religious subtext. Even the prologue can’t resist telling us that the Old Testament predicted mankind would go up in flames. While innocently delivering a package of photographs to an observatory, a scientist discovers that a new star Bellus and its solitary planet Zyra are on a collision course with our planet. In just a few months, Zyra will pass close enough to prompt tidal waves and earthquakes which will wipe out most of humanity. Two weeks later the fiery Bellus will obliterate whatever remains.

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

After checking and rechecking, the chief astronomer presents his findings to the United Nations where he is laughed out of court. Only after the findings are confirmed by other astronomers and a mysterious orange coloured ball appears in the night sky does a global panic set in. The film concentrates on effort’s to build a rocketship, in the USA of course, that will carry a lucky 44 passengers to Zyra moments before the Earth’s destruction. Fortunately, Zyra has a climate similar to ours and oxygen a-plenty. There they will begin a new life in a 20th century version of Noah’s Ark.

Apart from a few scenes of grand-scale destruction which include the obliteration of New York by a tidal wave, the focus remains on the team building the rocket with hardly a thought for the doomed billions round the world. The emphasis is on the lottery and the horse trading of who shall be saved (and who shall not) in the underground base where the rocket is being assembled. At length the spaceship does manage to lift-off and eventually lands on Zyra where a bright morning sun and green fields await the new arrivals. The film’s closing shots wish them a pleasant sojourn.

When Worlds Collide started a theme which has lasted to the present time. Seven years later, there was the low budget The Day the Shy Exploded which, rather like Quatermass, began with an American astronaut being 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 aboard which unhappily then collides with a meteor shower. The resulting atomic explosion creates a magnetic field which pulls the little asteroids together to create a huge one heading our way.

The final scene from the 1998 movie Deep Impact.

These two movies together virtually created dozens of other movies 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 a comedy as well as a horror movie, symbolizing that even the prospect of the end of the world must be fitted into media ratings with a president interested only in being reelected rather than addressing a world crisis.

But there are two differences between the original and the 2021 successor. When World Collide has heavy religious symbolism, whilst the lucky survivors start a new life in apparently peaceful surroundings in outer space. Don’t Look Up has no obviously religious outlook and the movie concludes with huge-beaked birds about to eat the hapless survivors as they emerge from their spaceship. The only advice given to the passengers is from the captain. “Whatever happens, don’t touch them!”

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