Quite a while back there were calls asking for recommendations of reactionary movies. Besides The Caine Mutiny (which I have to review formally) and Logan’s Run, the next one that comes to mind is 1951’s When Worlds Collide.
It’s based on a 1933 book of the same name by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, and is one of the rare instances where the movie (produced by science fiction legend George Pal) is an improvement. The book was plotted like a Golden Age comic book, with as much depth, and where all sentences were required to end with an exclamation point or ellipsis. The basic story was gripping, though, and still is.
Remember this is 1951, before rocket travel, before (sufficiently sized) computers, before there were even ways to make routine phone calls to the States from South Africa. Which is where our movie begins. An astronomer there has just confirmed a horrible discovery: a star named Bellus is on a collision course with Earth.
The star is towing a planet called Zyra, which will arrive before the star and through tidal forces cause great destruction to the Earth, but will not destroy it. The star, which will arrive a week after, will turn Earth into vapor.
The South African scientist calls on strapping sandy-haired handsome pilot David Randall to carry a locked briefcase with the evidence of the impending collision to the States’s Dr. Cole Hendron. When we first see Randall a blonde is cooing into his ear, and when later he lands in the States, he is immediately noticed by Hendron’s daughter Joyce. Randall makes a move, and while Joyce is not unreceptive, she demurs because she has an understanding with the less imposing physician Tony Drake.
The evidence of doom is confirmed by Dr Hendron, who ventures to the UN (where else?) to warn the world it is in deep kimchi. He is not believed: the truth is too fantastic—and too apolitical. This echoes our own world, where threats of catastrophic doom are believed in inverse ratio to their (conditional on the evidence) probability coupled with how much their “solution” aligns with ideology. Here there will be no “saving” the planet.
Some do see the light, including the crippled Sidney Stanton, a Steve Jobs-like billionaire (in our dollars), who hates people but loves himself. He provides the funds necessary to build a rocket, an ark, that will carry a select few to Zyra, which will survive when Bellus dissolves the Earth. Stanton pays on the understanding he’ll be one of the few.
Hendron moves his group to a remote location. Randall manages to insinuate himself into the group in part by employing a small bit of guile (he pretends he knows what is happening), but mostly because the daughter Joyce, and her father and the other men, like having him around. He is a natural leader.
The work on the ark progresses. The tension, even for a movie with non-computer special effects, or perhaps because of a lack of them, is real. The camp’s scientists and workers see a huge calendar with the number of days left until Zyra will arrive. An announcer pleads with all to “Hurry! Hurry! We are behind schedule!”
Every item to go on the ark is weighed carefully, including the pairs of animals thought necessary to restock the new planet. The work and sweat is actually shown, which gives the movie a realistic feel. Now the rocket can only carry only enough fuel to get to Zyra and land with minimal cargo. So it is decided to hold a lottery, with chits for an equal number of men and women. Absolutely no sexual deviants are in the mix, and not even a hint of a wink is given to Diversity; though we do hear (but never see) once in passing of similar ark projects around the world. These scientists understand that if humanity is to survive on the new planet, the people must be capable of reproduction. All who enter the lottery are healthy and intelligent.
We are given to believe all passengers are Christian, too, because a shot of the Bible opening to a scriptural passages begins the movie. The quotation?
And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth…
There are a few exceptions to the lottery, such as for Randall, at Joyce’s insistence, the physician and Dr Hendron, and of course Stanton. Randall does not feel deserving, openly acknowledging he did not earn his place, and forgoes his spot. Through a ruse, the physician, knowing that Joyce has chosen the better man, and that his love for Joyce must remain platonic, convinces Randall the mission needs him as a pilot. Randall has earned his spot.
Well, the world eventually learns Hendron was right, but of course it is too late. Hendron was naive, though, and thought his project would be left in peace. Stanton knew better, and had caused weapons to be smuggled into camp. He uses a pistol to murder a man in a tense scene in Hendron’s office. Hendron is shocked and chastened.
Zyra passes, destruction happens. Yet even though all know the world will die, the camp still pities those outside who were wounded, so they launch a brief mission to bring drugs and medical supplies to survivors who in a week will develop the worst sunburns in history. Some light comedic relief intervenes: a puppy and little boy are saved from drowning. They are of course given a berth.
The lottery begins.
As the chosen enter the ark, those who are being left behind reconsider their bargain. One man pleads with the ground crew to recall their vow. He is ignored. Another, bigger and much stronger, harangues his mates, “And why should our lives be decided by a raffle! It could have been fixed!” Another interjects, “It should have been done by voting!”
Their true natures emerges and they charge the ship.
Now what is a reactionary? A man who tries his best to see the Way Things Are, and who acts in all he does in accordance with all of Reality, and not against it. Since it’s not always easy to know exactly how things are, there are no perfect reactionaries. Hendron, at the very end, realizes his view of humanity was too utopian, and so he sacrifices himself, and Stanton, by causing the ark’s supports to be loosed before the mob can get to it. Hendron also bargains that removing his weight and Stanton’s would leave the rocket with enough fuel to land.
Which it did, with Randall at the stick. The colonizers exit the ship into some funky flora and what look to be abandoned alien structures. As Noah and his wife—Randall and Joyce—walk hand in hand down the gangplank, an illuminated scripture-like text closes the movie: “The first day on the new world had begun…”