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Thursday, November 1, 2007

When Films Coincide (originally published 5/98)

If Hollywood's big spectacles of the summer, "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," are to be believed, the world will end not with a whimper but with a bang. The end of the world has long been a favorite subject of moviemakers, partly due to its obvious dramatic potential and partly because it lends itself to the kind of spectacle that movies can do so well. Since the motion picture is an art form that came to maturity in the 20th Century, it is understandable that most of the films that have dealt with the end of the world have portrayed it in the context of a nuclear holocaust.

By comparison, the kind of disastrous cosmic billiards portrayed in "Deep Impact" have figured into far fewer doomsday movies. "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" (1962) comes to mind, in which atomic explosions bump the Earth out of its orbit, sending it spiraling into the sun. There's also "Meteor" (1979), which placed Earth right in the path of a gigantic piece of space debris. It wasn't these films, however, that loomed large in my mind as I watched "Deep Impact." The one film to which it seems to owe far and away the greatest debt is producer George Pal's 1951 classic, "When Worlds Collide."

Pal was not the first filmmaker to express an interest in adapting the 1932 novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Paramount originally acquired the rights to the book shortly after its publication, intending to make it a Cecil B. DeMille picture. That project never materialized, leaving the property in limbo until Pal hit upon it as a follow-up to his successful science fiction epic, "Destination Moon" (1949).

Like "Deep Impact," Pal's film begins with an alarming astronomical discovery: Earth is on a collision course with two worlds, subsequently named Zyra and Bellus. Earth's encounter with Bellus will be a near miss, causing worldwide earthquakes, eruptions, and tidal waves. Zyra, following closely behind, will impact Earth directly, destroying it. It is believed that Zyra will survive the collision, so the last best hope of humanity is to construct a huge rocket ship to take as many people as possible into space during the collision. The hope is that they will then be able to land on Zyra and carry on somehow. Because it will take more people to build the rocket ship than it can possibly carry, those who construct the craft agree to participate in a lottery. No one will know who goes and who stays until just hours before the launch. The high point in terms of spectacle is the cataclysmic upheaval that accompanies the passing of Bellus, including a scene in which a massive tidal wave inundates Manhattan.

If you've seen "Deep Impact," I'm sure you can understand why it reminded me so vividly of Pal's film. As similar as they are, however, there are also startling differences. "When Worlds Collide" was made for less than one million dollars, a fraction of what was spent on "Deep Impact" even if you adjust for 47 years of inflation. Pal was a master at creating outstanding effects on a small budget. When I met him some years ago, he explained to me how he achieved some of the film's most striking effects. For example, there is a spectacular shot of Earth and Zyra in such close proximity that Zyra's gravity pulls huge chunks of the Earth away. Pal explained that he had created a globe-like reproduction of Earth by modeling wax on the exterior of a light bulb. Then he turned on the light and allowed the melting wax to drip on a globe representing Zyra. When he slowed the action down, then rotated the shot so that the wax drips fell upward, the result was the effect he was after.

Pal's film was made for Paramount, which was the studio that had originally optioned the novel for DeMille, and also the studio that released "Deep Impact." The more I pondered this, and the more I thought about the significant similarities between the two films, the more I felt the tug of a dim but nagging recollection. A bit of research crystallized it for me: back in 1977, Paramount announced a remake of "When Worlds Collide." The planned remake was never made. Or was it? Look for "When Worlds Collide" on home video and decide for yourself.

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