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Film / When Worlds Collide

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"If our calculations prove to be correct, this will be the most frightening discovery of all time."
Dr. Bronson

When Worlds Collide is a 1951 Science Fiction film, produced by George Pal and directed by Rudolph Maté. Based upon the 1933 novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, it follows a group of astronomers who discover that a star is on a collision course with Earth. They work to build a spaceship to carry a small group of humans to a passing planet in an effort to save humanity.

This is often considered the first true impact event film and one of George Pal's best works.

The story was slated for a remake in 2012, to be produced by Steven Spielberg; it remains in Development Hell as of 2019. However, National Geographic's Evacuate Earth is a Speculative Documentary about much the same premise.

When Tropes Collide!

  • Adaptation Name Change. Bronson Alpha and Beta from the book become Bellus and Zyra.
  • Ace Pilot: Randall. It actually becomes important only in one particular plot point (see Plot Tailored, below).
  • America Saves the Day: Dr. Hendron's rocketship, which will take a grand total of forty people to their new world. Mention is made of other rockets being built around the world, but we never see any of them, nor learn if they were completed, launched and/or landed successfully.
    • Until the sequel novel, After Worlds Collide, published a year later, in which we learn that multiple rockets, launched from multiple nations, reached Beta.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Before the rocket launches, the lottery losers riot and try to force their way on board.
  • Artistic License – Physics: A surprisingly thoughtful amount of physics went into the design of the Ark rocket save for the "atomic engines." (The movie version uses standard fuel, and the limited amount of that fuel plays a critical part in the events after the lottery). However, whatever Bronson Alpha / Bellus is, its effects would be felt LONG before collision - the gravity tides alone would be causing immense tectonic activity, creating huge hurricanes and windstorms, and stripping away atmosphere days, even weeks, before the actual collision.
  • Ascended Extra: The closest equivalent to Stanton in the novel is a deranged tycoon who tries to buy his way onto the rocket.
  • At Least I Admit It: Stanton fully admits that he's selfish and willing to pay whatever it takes to stay alive. He also admits that he's spent his whole life living in the cutthroat human jungle, and expects people to try to force their way on the ship.
    "I'm no humanitarian like your friends Marsden and Spiro. I just don't relish dying."
  • Beta Couple: Eddie and Julie. The kicker: his number comes up for evacuation, hers does not, and he rejects his winning number to stay and die with his beloved. Both are given passage at the last minute, though at a very steep cost (see Heroic Sacrifice below).
  • Blatant Lies: Tony privately tells David that Dr. Frye has a heart condition and may not survive the g-force, which makes a backup pilot necessary.
  • Brick Joke: When David collects the plates, he's incensed that he hasn't received the full payment. Bronson tells him that the money doesn't matter anymore. Later, after learning the world is going to end, David uses dollar bills as a cigarette lighter and remarks that he'll have to tell Bronson how right he was.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Stanton brings several crates of rifles to the camp in order to protect them from people who may be desperate enough to force their way on board. The lottery losers eventually do just this, and use the guns that he brought.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Ferris is smoking just before Zyra makes its pass.
  • Cold Equation: Only so many people can be taken on the rocket, so this trope is played for drama throughout the movie. Then the rocket is overloaded so Hendon and Stanton (the latter against his will) stay back to give them the extra fuel.
  • Colony Drop / The End of the World as We Know It / Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Whether Bronson Alpha / Bellus is a star, a not-quite-stellar Brown Dwarf, or merely a humongous, rogue gas giant, the end is the same for Earth.
  • Compressed Adaptation: In the film, Bellus destroys Earth only 19 days after Zyra makes its pass. The book has 18 months pass between the two events, giving the survivors enough time to build a second rocket to carry the rest of the camp.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Stanton. While we never see any evidence of his actual business practices, he has a rather unpleasant personality.
  • Crazy-Prepared: When Ferris tries to force his way onto the ship at gunpoint, Stanton shoots him with a pistol from under his blanket.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the book, Dr. Hendron joins the survivors on the rocket to lead the new colony. In the film, he stays behind with Stanton, sacrificing themselves to ensure the rocket has enough fuel to make it to Zyra.
  • Diesel Punk: A differential analyzer (admittedly at the cusp of its own obsolescence in 1951) is used to calculate Bellus's course.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Almost literally. Dr. Bronson is killed when a crane falls on him during the passing of Zyra.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Stanton, who freely admits to being completely selfish, expects that the human race will tear itself apart in an attempt to escape the disaster. "It's dog eat dog — the law of the jungle!"
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: After Hendron is laughed out of the UN, we see a newsboy announcing the latest headlines.
  • Face Death with Dignity: A narrator says that the evacuation from coastal cities is calm and orderly as mankind accepts its collective fate. Most are said to be huddled in prayer before the end.
  • Fiction 500: Sydney Stanton. Hendron is forced to approach him so that they'll have enough money to build the rocket.
  • Foreshadowing: Marsden and Spiro use their age as the reason for helping build the rocket so that the young might live. Hendron later sacrifices himself and Stanton because "The new world isn't for us, it's for the young."
  • Genre Buster: Generally considered a Speculative Fiction story, but the film is more a human drama, studying and tracing out people's psychological reactions to The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Hendron keeps himself and Stanton from boarding the rocket in order to lighten the load. As it turns out, their sacrifice was crucial as the fuel still runs out too soon.
  • Homeworld Evacuation: One of the earliest examples in film, with 40+ survivors being picked.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Marsden and Spiro, two of Hendron's financial backers. After he explains that the world will end, they immediately offer aid. Once it's clear that they won't have any government backing, they arrange the lease on a campsite so that Hendron can start building the rocket.
  • If My Calculations Are Correct: invoked nearly word for word.
  • Ignored Expert: When Dr. Hendron first takes his warning of the impending Colony Drop to the U.N., they literally laugh him out of the room.
  • I Know You Know I Know: Toyed with; Randall initally must bring some data from one Dr. Bronson to Dr. Hendron for analysis and confirmation, but he (Randall) has no clue what the data is, much less what it means. When Joyce Hendron meets Randall, she assumes he already knows the details and speaks candidly to him; he plays this up in hopes that she will let slip what's going on.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: The little boy is one of three people who doesn't need to Lottery his way onto the ship. Which, given the situation, is probably entirely justified.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Tony steps aside nobly and gracefully (well, eventually) when it becomes clear that Joyce loves David.
  • Jerkass: Sydney Stanton, the wheelchair-bound financier.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Stanton makes a valid point early on that anyone desperate to survive will try to board their rocket, and so brings several cases of rifles to defend the camp. In the end, Hendron admits that Stanton was right, calling him a better judge of people than himself.
  • Lottery of Doom: Only forty people can fit onto the rocket and thus escape the end of the world. A few seats are reserved for the expedition leaders (Dr. Hendron, Joyce, Tony, Dr. Frye) and a couple of select passengers (Randall, Stanton, the little boy and his dog).
  • Missing Mom: Joyce Hendron's mother is never mentioned.
  • Money to Burn: David does this after learning the world is ending.
  • More Expendable Than You: David believes he has no useful skills and so tries to turn down his free seat on the rocket. When Tony claims to him that Dr. Frye has a heart condition and thus might not survive, he realizes that his skills as a pilot will be needed.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: Stanton initially offers to pay for the ark on the condition that he select the passengers. Hendron replies that he's not qualified to do so, and so simply offers him "his money for his life," granting him a seat on the rocket. Stanton says he can't refuse.
  • Only in It for the Money: Randall, at first.
  • Only Sane Man: One of the lottery losers tries to talk sense into the others by saying they agreed to the drawing and there's no point in trying to take the ship.
    "You can take the ship, sure! Then what? Only forty of you can get away. Don't you see?! Then the rest of us will get rid of that forty and the next forty, until we kill each other or we all get caught when the worlds collide!"
  • Plot Tailored to the Party: Played with and/or invoked; Joyce manages to cajole the evacuation into including Randall despite the fact (as even he readily admits) that he has no skills necessary to the trip — until it is pointed out that should something happen to the ship's pilot, only Randall could fly it.
  • Precursors: The survivors' first view of Zyra's surface includes massive pyramid-like structures, suggesting an ancient civilization that used to inhabit the planet.
  • The Professor: Dr. Hendron, Dr. Bronson, Dr. Frye.
  • Raygun Gothic: The design of the rocket is fully inline with this design philosophy.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dr. Hendron lays it into Stanton on the final day before the collision.
    Stanton: The fuel will last much longer with less cargo. Why risk our necks by taking so many people?
    Dr. Hendron: (slams a ruler on the table) You and that chair weigh 186 pounds. That's worth a lot of fuel, Mr. Stanton. Would you like to donate that weight?
    Stanton: No more than you want to donate your life or your daughter's. I paid for finishing this ship. Without me, you would have been wiped out with the rest of the world.
    Dr. Hendron: Before you opened your pocketbook, you tried to make this a personal enterprise, a private rocket ship for your own special use. This project was started by real humanitarians, by Marsden and Spiro. They gave their money with no strings attached. You're not here under any special license. You're always shouting for facts, not theories. Well, remember these facts. Our chance of reaching the new world is as thin as your chance of ever becoming a humanitarian. If we do make it, will there be a place to land? Will the air be fit to breathe? Will there be water? Vegetable life? Men and women here have been praying for God's help and guidance. Not your kind of hypocritical praying, but the kind that comes from deep inside a man.
  • Red Sky, Take Warning: Bellus' approach causes the sky to go red.
  • Retro Rocket: The Ark, although it's not a tail-sitter (it launches from a gigantic ramp).
  • Ridiculously Fast Construction: After only five months, the rocket's fuselage is nearly complete and the launch track is finished.
  • Romantic False Lead: Tony. He had been with Joyce for some time and even broaches the subject of marriage after learning the world will end.
  • Scenery Gorn: Planet Zyra's close call with Earth causes massive earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and all other manner of Stock Footage. After the pass, David and Tony get a look at the devastated New York City.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Dr. Hendron says that Bellus is exactly three billion miles from Earth. That is precisely the orbit of Neptune, and it is hard to imagine that a star heading for Earth wouldn't be seen long before getting that close.
    • The opening line of the film says that Bellus and Zyra have moved a million miles in two weeks. Later, upon hearing they are three billion miles away, David laughs and says people will need to worry in a hundred years. At that speed and from that distance, it would take a hundred years to hit Earth, not the eight months that pass in the film.
    • It even shows in the collision itself. A brown dwarf or substellar object wouldn't collide with Earth so much as absorb it. Gravitational tides would tear the planet apart many days or even weeks before the collision, and the survivors aboard the Arks would just see the debris impacting the atmosphere and disappearing, similar to what happened to Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 when it collided with Jupiter. The collision is actually shown as two similar-sized bodies actually hitting each other.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Dr. Hendron enforces this upon Stanton, who wants to finance the rocket in exchange for complete control.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: After killing Ferris, Stanton starts to boast about how he was right when Dr. Frye tells him to just shut up.
  • Speed, Smarts and Strength: Hendron, Frye, and Stanton are the three heads of the ark project. Hendron is the scientific head and overall leader of the camp, Frye supervises the rocket's design and construction, and Stanton provides financial backing to make the construction possible.
  • Technology Porn: The differential analyser (a digital/mechanical computer) and the helicopter (still new to audiences in The '50s) get a lot of visual emphasis.
  • Tempting Fate: As the designated hour of Zyra's approach is reached, Stanton scoffs at Hendron and the other scientists of their evidently flawed prediction.
    Stanton: Nothing is going to happen!
    (Cue Zyra's approach)
  • Throwing Off the Disability: Stanton gets off his wheelchair and stumbles a few steps away from it in a futile bid to board the rocket as it launches without him.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the first half of the film, there are passing mentions that similar rockets are being built in other nations. However, after the passing of Zyra, there is absolutely no mention of whether these ships were completed and made it off the planet.
    • The book's sequel described the fate of the other ships: the French ship crashed in the Alps on takeoff, the British ship landed in a lake on the new planet, and the broad Asian ship lands successfully and tries to claim the new world as its own. It is also mentioned that other rockets were built in more countries which might have survived.
    • Other than Julie (who is given a place anyway thanks to Hedron's Heroic Sacrifice), the female lottery losers completely disappear from the story towards the end. Technically we know what happened to them in the very end but unlike their male counterparts we don't witness it.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: The press initially dubs the ark rocket "Stanton's Folly," as prominent scientists scoff at the data that Bellus and Zyra will destroy the Earth. However, as the months pass and the end becomes irrefutable, Stanton laughs at their initial ridicule.