Pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) transports the top-secret photographs of South African astronomer Doctor Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke) to Doctor Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) in the United States. Hendron, with his daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), confirms the findings: a rogue star called Bellus is going to collide with Earth in eight months. Hendron warns the United Nations and asks them to build arks to transport people to the planet orbiting that star, called Zyra. Of course, his findings are rejected by the nations and by fellow scientists.
He receives help from wealthy humanitarians, particularly businessman Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt), who wants to choose who will be saved. Hendron refuses, but Stanton may buy a seat on the ark. Joyce is attracted to Randall and convinces her father to keep the pilot around. Her boyfriend, medical doctor Tony Drake (Peter Hansen) is annoyed. Bellus is seen and governments prepare. Other nations begin to build their own spaceships. Martial law is declared. Coastal regions are evacuated.
The planet Zyra arrives first, causing earthquakes, eruptions, and tsunamis. There are deaths at the camp, including Doctor Bronson. Drake and Randall use a helicopter to drop supplies to people in distress, and Drake almost abandons Randall. The spaceship is loaded with food, medicine, books on microfilm, equipment, and animals. Passengers are seated by lottery, though Hendron keeps seats for himself, Stanton, Joyce, Drake, and Randall. Also, young boy who was rescued. And his dog. Randall neglects to choose a seat, but Drake reveals that a pilot named Frey has a heart condition and will not survive the takeoff, so Randall becomes co-pilot.
Stanton stockpiles weapons, fearing what lottery losers may do. A young man rejects his ticket because his beloved was not chosen. Stanton’s assistant Harold Ferris (Frank Cady) seizes the ticket at gunpoint and is shot by Stanton. Just before takeoff, Hendron triggers the launch prematurely, while he and Stanton are not on board. The crew are unconscious because of the acceleration and do not see Earth’s destruction. Fuel runs out just as the spaceship enters Zyra’s atmosphere and Randall glides to a safe landing. They find Zyra habitable. Good thing, eh? The lovers walk hand in hand down the ramp.
The film was produced by George Pal and directed by Rudolph Maté, based on the 1933 novel by Edwin Balmer and Phillip Wylie. Cecil B. DeMille did not direct, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. did not star as originally planned. George Pal’s ambitious budget was cut. Chesley Bonestell designed the space ark and the planets. The science was criticized by experts, but the special effects won a special Oscar. I don’t know which is more problematic: the science or the morality. Even without the impact, both Earth and Zyra would have been devastated by the close passage. Those in charge seem quite willing to bypass the lottery to include their friends and relatives.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, two cargo containers in the Genesis Cave are labelled Bellus and Zyra. George Pal wanted to film the novel’s sequel After Worlds Collide, but this did not happen. Some shots from the film were used in War of the Worlds (1959), the Time Machine (1960), and Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1961). Talk of a remake by Steven Spielberg came to nothing, but the film did influence Deep Impact. The set of the planet Zyra was not completed, so a painting was used, which unfortunately contained a huge artificial structure, and viewers wondered why the new arrivals did not notice that the world was inhabited.