The Martians Are Coming

War of the Worlds begins with World War II stock footage, projecting a post-war confidence,  and selling western military might. The final image in Hollywood’s HG Wells’ adaptation is of a church, matted in place, in front of a smoldering Los Angeles. America’s war machines did nothing to stop this; only God did.

Wells’ work unabashedly struck at British colonialism, circa the early 1900s. That doesn’t factor in to producer George Pal’s adaptation – it’s a desperate us-versus-them conflict with Generals barking orders, dropping bombs, and strategizing.

War of the Worlds is not a movie where tanks or scientific ingenuity wins. Both fail. Human nature, taking the form of rioting and looting, cost us that chance when a truck of electronics is lost to panicked Los Angeleans. What’s left afterward is strewn debris, shocked scientist Clayton Forester (Gene Barry), and a rich man, cowering over a briefcase stuffed with now useless cash.

War of the Worlds isn’t inherently patriotic, unlike others in the then soon-to-be stuffed ‘50s sci-fi genre

The invasion begins in a small California town, at times Normal Rockwell worthy. A scene with people lining their small grocery, intently listening to the shared radio, evokes something more akin to pre-war America; this town hasn’t moved on. Soon, it won’t have a chance to.

It’s not that these Martian ships – identified as such with the loosest science theory – shoot down troops on the west coast, or destroy freedom. War of the Worlds isn’t inherently patriotic, unlike others in the then soon-to-be stuffed ‘50s sci-fi genre. What saves America, and the world, is Christian belief. A priest attempts to make peace, preaching before alien heat rays vaporize his body. Before the climax, it’s estimated Martians will conquer Earth in six days. Sylvia (Ann Robinson) replies, “The same number of days it took to create it.” Only a few scenes later, Clayton goes from church to church as people gather, calmly listening to their preacher or living their final moments in song. God’s house provides sanctuary.

Truly elegant yet masterfully fear-inducing, Martian ships drop to Earth in searing meteors, immeasurably hot like flames in Biblical Hell. Their heads take a serpentine shape, attacking, and without known cause to the Earthlings being incinerated. Coated in golden metal, the iconic design conveys vanity, like floating sin across landscapes.

As with Wells’ work, the Martian end happens because unseen, microscopic bacteria infected the otherworldly beings. Unlike Wells’ novel, it’s not luck bringing end to a moral failure, rather how unflinching belief in a higher power’s plan will always succeed. How few films from this (or any) era so ably reduce militaristic and scientific progress to nothing against philosophical faith.

Video

Paramount issued a Dolby Vision-equipped, 4K-mastered digital release a few years ago. All the more impressive then Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray capably holds up against that next-gen version. To note, yes, wire removal is performed. It’s mostly unobtrusive, save for a brief clip during the probe scene where grain notably freezes where the wire used to be visible; that’s a split second shot, and other times, wires still do appear.

On that same note, it’s important to consider previous War of the Worlds discs came from Eastman color prints, changing the saturation and revealing wires where they didn’t show before. Now, Paramount/Criterion draws from a true three-strip Technicolor print, and it’s marvelous. Reference grade, even. Dazzling hues give War of the Worlds a natural yet intense glow. Every primary sees renewed life, splendid and rich without fault. Eerie reds and the gorgeous copper/gold metals never looked so beautiful at home.

Zero print damage represents perfect restoration, grain intact unlike the 2005 special edition DVD and its egregious DNR. Detail flourishes, both in capturing Los Angeles at that point in history and high-grade facial texture. Absurdly good clarity and sharpness reach this format’s peak. Adding to the image brilliance? Black levels reaching perfect depth, matched on the opposite end by super-heated rays. The range is absurd and flawless.

Audio

This is an interesting one. Criterion does preserve the original mono mix, but introduces a new 5.1 sound mix too, done by Ben Burtt. It’s… different. New effects don’t blend well, even when against the surprising precision from the source material. Aged this has not. Mostly, it sounds fresh and new thanks to crisp dialog, plus the sharp sound effects, undoubtedly masterpieces. Here they play without fault.

Burtt has fun with this. The score dynamically stretches across stereos, meteors fall side-to-side, or through surrounds. Beams spray in each speaker convincingly. Military strikes push tank shells and missiles around. Even ambiance works, like in a war room as typewriters clack. Destruction is where the seemingly new touches become obvious, sticking out against the vintage source.

Extras

Movie Archaeologists spends 30-minutes on the making of, featuring Ben Burtt and effects man Craig Barron, including a deleted scene recreation exploring how everything was done (visuals and sound too). A look at the restoration lasts 20-minutes. Released to coincide with the Steven Spielberg War of the Worlds in 2005, a half-hour retrospective was produced in time to hear from Gene Barry. Wells and Welles includes two programs, one the infamous 1930 radio play, the other an interview. A 1970 audio interview with George Pal explores his career over 49-minutes.

A 2005 commentary carries over from Paramount’s DVD, with Joe Dante, Bob Burns, and Bill Warren. It’s still excellent. Other deleted effects scenes do exist, but sadly, do not make it onto the disc.

War of the Worlds (1953)
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
5

Movie

One of the screen’s great alien invasion stories, War of the Worlds represents a creative peak and unique religiously-focused allegory.

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