“In the First World War, and for the first time in the history of man, nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days…The Second World War involved every continent on the globe, and men turned to science for new devices of warfare, which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction…And now, fought with the terrible weapons of super science, menacing all mankind and every creature on Earth comes...THE WAR OF THE WORLDS!”
NOTE: This review contains spoilers, both for the film and the original novel.
Review Date: January 10, 2006
Released by: Paramount Home Video
Release date: 11/1/2005
Region 1, NTSC
We open in the small California town of Linda Rosa as a giant meteorite roars out of the sky and buries itself in nearby clearing. After the local authorities put out the resulting fires they send word of the event to a group of scientists fishing in the nearby hills. The group includes Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry
), a renowned physicist. He heads to the site and meets pretty young college professor Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson
) and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin
). Upon investigating the area Forrester notices that the meteor made an abnormally small crater when it landed, meaning it was either extraordinarily lightweight or hollow, either of which seems improbable. Deciding to halt further investigation until the object cools off, Forrester accepts an invitation to stay with Pastor Collins for the night. As darkness falls, three local men who have been left to guard the area hear a strange noise, and to their horror they realize that a circular hatch seems to be unscrewing from inside the meteor. It opens up and a cobra-like head with an electronic eye emerges. The men approach it waving a white flag and are promptly blasted out of existence by a glowing heat ray.
The ray creates a magnetic disturbance that knocks out the phones and power in Linda Rosa. Forrester and the local authorities go up to the landing site to investigate and have a close encounter the alien machine that leaves a police car and its driver incinerated. They inform the government of what has happened, and the next morning the Marines arrive and surround the area. Arriving with them is General Mann (Les Tremayne
), an intelligence officer who brings news that this meteorite is not an isolated incident. There have been other cylinders – all of which seem to originate from the planet Mars – that have landed in other parts of the world. The troops dig in and soon a glowing, floating object resembling a manta ray with a cobra’s head emerges from the cylinder. Two more Martian machines of the same design then emerge. Horrified that the military plans to open fire without making any attempt to communicate with the aliens, Pastor Collins walks out into the line of fire to meet the craft. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, he displays a crucifix and the Martians blast him with their heat ray. The troops open fire, but the Martians are invulnerable, protected by a force field that deflects even the heaviest shells. The brief and terrible battle that ensues results in a complete Martian victory.
The spectacle of an Earth army retreating under the Martian onslaught begins to be repeated all over the world. From South America to Australia to China, more and more Martian cylinders land, sewing death and destruction on every corner of the globe, and resisting any attempt by any military force to destroy them. Even as the nations of the world unite in a common defensive front, lawlessness and chaos spread as civilization begins to break down the world begins to face the unthinkable – the complete destruction of human civilization is near.
This 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, produced by legendary science fiction filmmaker George Pal, is one of, if not the, best alien invasion films ever made. Though the broad genre of science fiction contains many films which are superior to it, in the more limited invasion subgenre it is almost without equals. It is tense, exciting and engaging, with above average acting and special effects that hold up surprisingly well even today (though the wires holding the Martian war machines up are often visible). It is still the best adaptation of the novel out there, and even though the recent Steven Spielberg adaptation was a perfectly watchable movie, it still wasn’t as entertaining or as interesting as this version (and the less that is said about the recent poverty-stricken direct-to-DVD adaptation directed by Timothy Hines the better).
George Pal, director Byron Haskin and screenwriter Barré Lyndon are able to successfully update the Victorian setting of the novel into a modern story that was just as contemporary for American audiences in 1953 as it was it was for British readers in 1898. The three-legged Martian war machines – one of the novel’s most distinctive aspects – are here replaced by the sleek and terrifying manta-ray machines that manage to be just as memorable. In fact, the new design probably makes the aliens much more effective than they would have been had the original tripod design been used. Wells’ vehicles were a creation of the industrial age – big hulking pieces of machinery with lots of moving parts. In contrast, the new designs are creations of the nuclear age – graceful and high-tech, powered by atomic energy and controlled with advanced electronics.
The movie does suffer from several problems apart from the overt religiosity of the whole thing (more on that later). Though George Pal was given an appreciable budget to work with – somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million, reportedly – it was still not quite enough to be telling a story of this scope, and the balance between the main storyline and the worldwide invasion angle is an uneasy one. Most of the spectacle is limited to the story of Forrester and Sylvia and their experiences with the Martian landings in California. The global part of the invasion is depicted mostly through stock footage of refugees and various military forces from other parts of the world, superimposed with shots of Martian war machines and heat rays, and some limited matte paintings. The montage editing works remarkably well, but it cannot disguise the corner-cutting.
Though Forrester makes a good enough hero (and Gene Barry’s performance is an appropriate fit to the part), Ann Robinson doesn’t make such a good heroine, and the character of Sylvia is a weak point. Though initially she seems to be characterized as a strong, modern woman (well, at least by 1950's standards), she becomes a screaming, hysterical female as soon as the Martians start shooting, and only occasionally regains composure. Though plenty of people have liked Ann Robinson’s performance, I’ve never been one of them, and she is often annoying.
In the movie America is shown becoming a battlefield for the first time in nearly a century. There are stark images of destruction and chaos as society breaks down and thousands of refugees are shown fleeing a doomed Los Angeles. It should be remembered that, despite its epic title, the original Wells novel really didn’t depict a war between Earth and Mars. Rather, it told the story of a more limited conflict between the Martians and the British, because in the novel the invasion is limited only to that country (though it is implied that future landings are inevitable). Here the invasion is swift and truly global. The Martian armies come across as a genuine military force – the invaders have their own strategic objectives, and there is a fascinating short scene where General Mann gives a lecture to foreign military officials explaining the Martian’s battlefield tactics.
War of the Worlds
was the first true alien invasion film of the 1950’s (even though Howard Hawks’ The Thing
preceded it, the alien in that film was a hostile but accidental presence), and it is essentially a one-of-a-kind because of its ending. The film ends as the novel ends, with the Martians succumbing to the bacteria in Earth’s atmosphere that even the most basic creatures on this planet are immune to. This is a far cry from practically every other film of this nature. Usually the alien invaders meet their doom in one of two ways, either through humanity inventing some new weapon or through humans discovering what the invaders’ Achilles Heel is and exploiting it. Such notions are drawn from mankind’s long history of asymmetric warfare, in which a weak combatant can succeed by striking an enemy where he is most vulnerable and least expecting. Though there are some hints that the movie is moving in that direction – particularly when Forrester’s colleagues examine a specimen of Martian blood and realize that it’s highly anemic – in the end the germs do it without mankind’s help.
There are many differing interpretations of the ending, some religious, some scientific, others philosophical. The irony of it is sometimes lost. Despite all their mighty technology, in the end the Martians turn out to be just as mortal as all of us. But this adaptation of the novel does things somewhat differently. In the book the Martians, despite routing the British military easily, still take casualties from hostile fire. In this film the invaders are not vulnerable to any weapons whatsoever. “Guns, tanks, bombs! They’re like toys against them!” screams General Mann after an atomic bomb fails to destroy a group of Martian vehicles, which prompts Forrester’s observation that, “We know now that we can’t beat their machines – we’ve got to beat them.” But humanity in the end can’t so much as even dent the armor on one of their war machines.
The film attaches a highly religious significance to the death of the Martians. Forrester and Sylvia are hiding in a crowded church, holding each other and waiting for the end to come when, outside, a war machine stops and falls. Investigating, he and the others exit the church and see a hatch open up. A Martian arm reaches out and falls still. Forrester feels it and realizes the alien is dead. “We were all praying for a miracle,” he says as the bells on the church begin to ring. In the closing narration, Sir Cedric Hardwicke intones that, “After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.” Though this line is a close variation on a line which appears near end of the novel, the context that the movie presents it in is what gives it the religious overtones. In our highly secular age this may be discomforting to some viewers and whether Wells would have approved of it is questionable.
Nonetheless, The War of the Worlds
is still a movie that belongs on the shelf of every science fiction and monster fan. Fifty-two years later its spectacle and its visual power hold up remarkably well, and it’s quick and suspenseful pace, as well as its brisk running time insures that it’s one movie which never fails to entertain.
War of the Worlds
was first released on DVD by Paramount in 1999. This edition presents a new, remastered transfer that is leaps and bounds over the old disc. The vivid Technicolor hues sparkle in this new edition. They are beautifully saturated (but not oversaturated – even reds aren’t too bad) with proper flesh tones. The level of clarity and detail is wonderful, although on the downside this edition makes it easier than ever before to see the wires holding the Martian machines up. Blacks are largely true and deep, though shadow detail occasionally suffers. Compression artifacts are not a problem, and aside from a few nicks and one or two vertical lines the film is remarkably free of damage of any type.
This is a marked contrast to the older disc. The following screen shots will give you some idea of the difference:
The color scheme on the older release isn’t bad, though flesh tones are a bit off. The level of clarity and detail is inferior to the newer release, but not by much. What really makes the new release head and shoulders above the old one is the superior compression and almost complete lack of print damage on display. The 1999 release featured numerous digital artifacts and a very high degree of damage, including frequent scratches, blemishes and specks. The new release is definitely the way to go.
Two English soundtrack options are available, a 2.0 Surround track and a 2.0 Mono one (the original release only contained the Mono track). The Surround track is the better of the two. It is louder - I was forced to turn the volume way up while listening to the Mono track - and with better reproduction of dialogue and sound effects, though it suffers from the recording and sound mixing limitations of the day. Though there are no major instances of background noise or distortion, the volume levels are unbalanced, with music and sound effects a tad too loud and dialogue a tad too quiet. The Mono track is similarly unbalanced.
A French language track in 2.0 Mono is also included, as well as optional English subtitles.
Capitalizing on their release of the Steven Spielberg adaptation, Paramount has given the original War of the Worlds
what may be close to a definitive release, and they are to be commended for their efforts, as this was probably the last chance to embark on a project like this while a good chunk of the original talent was still alive. The supplements kick off with two commentary tracks, the first with stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. Unfortunately, it’s not that great of a listen. Though both seem to have considerable respect for the movie, we get the impression that they look at it quite differently. Robinson seems to consider it to be one of the most important things she has ever done in her life, while Barry seems to look at it more as simply the role that kicked off his lengthy and successful career as a character actor. Robinson is extremely enthusiastic and talkative, but Barry is more subdued. He goes through long bouts of silence and then becomes extremely talkative. Both are interesting, but the track as a whole isn’t.
The second track, featuring genre director Joe Dante and film historians Bob Burns and Bill Warren, is a lot better. All three of them know their War of the Worlds
and discuss everything from the film’s religious overtones to the myriad of familiar Hollywood bit players who show up in small roles. Warren tends to talk the most (as is befitting, since he wrote a massive two-volume book on 1950’s science fiction films called “Keep Watching the Skies” that is still considered the definitive work on the subject, even twenty years after its publication), with Dante coming in second and Burns in last place, but all three men prove to be worthwhile commentators.
Next up there are two featurettes. The first is a classic “making-of” short called The Sky Is Falling
. Running approximately thirty minutes, it features interviews with Ann Robinson, Gene Barry (who makes a better impression here than he does in the commentary), Bob Burns, supporting actor Robert Cornwaith (who plays one of Forrester’s colleagues), Ray Harryhausen (who tried to produce his own version using stop-motion animation) and other surviving people associated with the production. Starting from the initial attempts to bring the story to the screen in the 1920’s (Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock were just two of a number of directors interested in the project), it explores the pre-production, production, the special effects and the film’s lasting legacy, using plenty of behind-the-scenes photographs, conceptual drawings and special effects test footage. Though it’s not the best example of a retrospective documentary I’ve seen, it is informative and entertaining.
The second featurette is entitled H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction
, which features interviews with Dr. John S. Partington of the H.G. Wells Society and filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, director of the 1979 thriller Time After Time
, which features a fictionalized Wells traveling to modern San Francisco in search of a time-hopping Jack the Ripper. Aided by photographs and rare sound footage of Wells speaking, the two men cover all the expected aspects of the author’s life, including his youth, his writing and his political activism. Though it contains some fascinating information - including the revelation that Wells’ writings irked the Nazis so badly that his name was put on list of British intellectuals to be eliminated in the event of a German invasion of that country – it’s short ten and a half minute running time prevents the piece from being anything more than a thumbnail biographical piece. It may serve as a useful introduction for people unfamiliar with his work, but more than anything else it left me feeling that my time would have been better spent reading a really good book on the man.
The only other big supplement is the original, full-length 1938 radio adaptation from Orson Wells’ Mercury Theater ensemble. As almost everyone knows, this is the broadcast which sparked a night of mass hysteria around the country when listeners failed to realize that Wells’ mock news reports of an alien invasion were simply a clever storytelling gimmick. It has become a required part of the curriculum in media studies programs at universities across the country, and stands as one of the first known examples of the “mockumentary”. Nowadays it seems pretty tacky, but one can see how listeners of the day could fall for it. It’s presented here in its original Mono, and other than being a little crackly it sounds fine.
A theatrical trailer finishes off the extra features (it is the same one that appeared on the otherwise bare-bones 1999 edition).
The War of the Worlds
represents everything that made 1950’s science fiction good, and it has aged remarkably well. Even if you already own the original DVD release, this new edition is both superior in every respect and yet inexpensive as well. It is without a doubt worthy of a purchase.
Movie – B+
Image Quality – A-
Sound – B-
Supplements – A-
- Running Time – 1 hour 25 minutes
- Rated G
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- English 2.0 Surround
- French 2.0 Mono
- English subtitles
- Commentary track with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson
- Commentary track with Joe Dante, Bill Warren and Bob Burns
- The Sky Is Falling making-of featurette
- H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction featurette
- Original 1938 Orson Wells radio broadcast
- Theatrical trailer