When Plots Collide

. . . but when worlds collide,
said George Pal to his bride,
I'm gonna give you some terrible
thrills . . .
--The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Nowhere in the press materials for Deep Impact can I find any reference to Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's novel When Worlds Collide, or to the epic film of it made in 1951. But consider: When Worlds Collide has its hero stumble inadvertently upon news that is being hushed to avoid what, in films of the Fifties, was referred to as "a general panic."

The news is that two planets are on a collision course with Earth. The first, Zira, narrowly misses, wreaking destruction, including a spectacular engulfing of Manhattan by tidal waves. The second, Bellus, will broadside terra firma, shattering it like a melon. The only hope is a frantic international project to build an ark in which humanity--in this case, a few dozen strapping, conspicuously Caucasian breeders--can zip off to Zira, which may be habitable.

In Deep Impact, it's two comets instead of two planets. Both will collide, but the first is small and survivable--though it still swamps the Big Apple--while the second is bigger and not. It's a female reporter (Tea Leoni) who stumbles upon this hushed-up terror, not the square-jawed hero of the Fifties film. And the "ark" project this time goes underground rather than to the cosmos. So it's, like, a completely, totally different story.

When Worlds Collide, produced by the legendary George Pal, was extravagant, state-of-the-art stuff in its day--it won an Oscar for its special effects--and it still holds up entertainingly (it's available on Paramount Home Video). Directed by Rudolph Mate, the film's pious, sober approach seems grander, more epic than other sci-fi of the period. Despite the futuristic subject matter, the tone almost feels closer to that of the silent religious epics. It has been said, rightly, that film would have been perfect for D.W. Griffith, who, alas, died three years before it was made.

In L.A. Confidential, a movie premiere is used as the backdrop during the pot-bust scene. The title on the marquee: When Worlds Collide. Here, however, the phrase seems to be suggesting the apocalyptic coming-together of law enforcement with show biz. What do you get when figurative worlds figuratively collide? Los Angeles, California.


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