Better than the usual astronauts-stranded-on-a-strange-planet early sci-fi. The sets and sequences in space and underground are imaginative, with a keen use of color that adds a sense of wonder, and helps maintain our suspension of disbelief. Although the plot builds on many devices of the genre, it’s developed in enough depth to sustain interest.
The fact that the destination is actually Earth is a nice touch; this too is derivative, but also gives the social commentary some relevance. There’s three types of humans here: the post-apocalyptic mutants, the civilized guys living underground, and more or less normal folks held hostage by the mutants. Another interesting division, among the civilized group, is the vital, healthy women alongside the cadaverous-looking men. That’s something that doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially as their children apparently all end up like whimpy guys. It’s not just the women’s appearance that stands out, they’re also starved of warmth and affection from the androgynous men. It’s a sort of blend of ’50s sexism with an inadvertent empowering aspect.
Another interesting area is the pacifist ideology of the civilized people. Perhaps it’s reflective of a Cold War reaction–in that anti-militarism is taken to an absurd level. At the same time, their civilization seems totalitarian: hermetically sealed, convinced of its innate superiority, devoted to pure science, and intolerant, if not paranoid, of outside influence. It’s also clear that eliminating war and violence doesn’t mean that there isn’t evil–as Mories’s character shows. Its a suffocating bureaucratic state (symbolized by being underground), largely anti-humanist, while purporting to be just the opposite.
Then there’s the ‘dying civilization’ component. The society isn’t physically sustainable. Thanks to the free-thinking women, Mories is defeated, and the leadership decides to take its chances on the more dangerous, but healthier surface. The single combat between the astronauts’ commander and the head mutant quickly decides the matter. Then all is well, as the regular folks build a new civilization along with the former underground folks. That’s an interesting development in a couple of ways.
Unlike most films of this type, the astronauts stick around. By this point, since the ex-underground guys are on the same page with the astronauts, they could conceivably help them fix their rocket. It seems strange that this never comes up; I suppose we can just assume that further exploration becomes possible. The other facet of the civilization’s redevelopment at the end is more fundamental. Do they (the astronauts) really have to change everything? It sort of smacks of colonization, especially the scene with the makeshift school. Clearly, it’s assumed that the ‘natives’ have to re-trained; I suppose that’s positive, but what’s wrong with leaving well enough alone?
At least the ending’s plausible. I’m not too bothered with the junk science which supposedly explains the immense job of five hundred years of time-travel. It might’ve been better if the astronauts had claimed to have traveled at the speed of light; others rightly point out that the math stated doesn’t add up. Nonetheless, the theory itself is genuine. We’re helped along that slippery scientific slope by the mere fact that World Without End puts the astronauts in a sort of twilight zone just by the using the mystery of space travel. Since they’re put into a perilous position by one leap of faith (several years before actual space travel), another hurdle (time-traveling) is easier to accept.
World Without End is entertaining from beginning to end. There is a plot shift in the middle as we deal with the political infighting, but there are enough hooks back to the main plot that it all fits in well. The tone is consistent throughout–a blend of tension, discovery, and conflict, with lighter moments that don’t obscure the main focus. If you like ’50s sci-fi, this should land in your comfort zone. 8/10