We take spectacle cinema for granted these days. Summer movie season now stretches roughly 10-and-a-half months and delivers 150+ minutes of eye-bleeding action and CG-saturated excess. Some of the movies are good, some are enjoyable if not groundbreaking, and some are just a slog. But they all have the same thing in common: they’re big. Each franchise tries to outdo the others and offer the biggest, most popcorn-devouring spectacle of the year. Sci-fi action owns the big screen, and it has done for a very long time.
Watching Criterion‘s new release of the 1953 The War of the Worlds, it’s easy to draw a line across 67 years of cinema. That movie is still supremely effective, and it did it in only 85 minutes.
It’s easy to look at movies that set the initial bar in retrospect and deem them boring or quaint compared to today. But you have to put yourself into the mind of a viewer in the early 1950s. We’ve seen alien invasion movies all our lives; back then it was brand new. 1951 saw the release of three of the most important such movies in the early days; The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and When Worlds Collide. Each has its own sense of awe and fear with aliens arriving, or the planet of the brink of destruction. But by 1953, these themes coalesced into a perfect spear of shock.
George Pal, the independent producer who made Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide, impressed Paramount and they gave him H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, the rights to which producer-director Cecil B. DeMille had obtained years earlier. Pal was the perfect choice for this kind of movie. Both Moon and Worlds won the Oscar for best visual effects in 1950 and 1951, respectively. For this, he’d push his skills even further.
To direct The War of the Worlds, Pal chose Byron Haskin, a director, cinematographer, and special effects man whose career started in the 1920s. He knew how to frame miniatures to make them look enormous, and the film’s alien ships look gargantuan on the scale model streets and hillsides. Rather than use the walking tripods from Wells’ book, Pal and Haskin opted for flying machines with eyestalk lasers on top.
The story of the film transposes Wells’ English countryside to a small town in Southern California. Gene Barry stars as Dr. Clayton Forrester (yes, MST3K used the name), a renowned scientist (the best kind) who spies a falling celestial object when out fishing with some pals. At the crash site, Dr. Forrester meets USC library science instructor Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). That night, the strange pod opens and a Martian weapon disintegrates the men standing guard. The Marines surround the object as reports pour in of more such “cylinders” crashing to Earth.
Thus begins a series of brutal victories for the Martian craft, using heat rays and disintegration to destroy all obstacles in their way. Even Pastor Collins gets blasted when trying to reason with them in the name of God (a shocking scene today, but damn near volcanic in 1953). As Forrester and Sylvia struggle to learn anything about the Martians, the US Military tries in vain to battle them. They are hopelessly outmatched; the subjugation of the Earth seems assured.
I’m not going to give away the ending to the movie if you haven’t seen it or read the book. But it is a bit of an anti-climax after the destruction and carnage on display. But that’s sort of what’s genius about it. This isn’t a “humanity fights aliens” movie; it’s an “aliens as natural disaster” movie. The aliens are less an invading threat than an unstoppable force majeure. Watching their ships maraud ’50s America is akin to an earthquake, tornado, or hurricane. All you can do is try to survive. That the Martians (spoilers) eventually stop marauding is down to luck and chance, not the will of any man.
Steven Spielberg obviously remade this movie in the 2000s and, in typical Spielberg fashion, focused on a family breaking apart rather than a scientist and his newfound love interest. It’s a much more blue collar approach to the same story, but I don’t think it’s nearly as effective. In Pal’s movie, we see regular citizens fall victim to the Martians, sure, but we also spend a lot of time with the American military failing at every turn. The same American military that came home the heroes of WWII less than 10 years earlier. No greater way to show how absolutely pwned we are than that.
The War of the Worlds has received a dazzling 4K restoration which you can see on Criterion’s Blu-ray. The color of that 1950s Technicolor positively oozes from the screen. We also have a new alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, created by sound designer Ben Burtt and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. All this means that there’s nothing quaint or hokey about the way this movie looks and sounds on your home screen. It’s the movie that more or less birthed the sci-fi spectacle movie and it shows. Movies of this nature led to B-movie hokum, but there’s none on display here. This is an astoundingly good and still quite scary movie.
And amid several documentaries and interviews on the Blu-ray, you can also listen to the entire Orson Welles Mercury Radio Theatre production of The War of the Worlds, which several people thought was real in 1938. Both of these depictions of H.G. Wells’ story prove what a staggering work of science fiction it is. And honestly, no one’s ever topped them. Not even Mr. Spielberg.
Fittingly, The War of the Worlds won the Visual Effects Oscar in 1953, making Pal a three-in-a-row winner. He’s go on to produce other science fiction spectacles like Conquest of Space, Atlantis, the Lost Continent, and his 1960 masterpiece The Time Machine, based on another H.G. Wells book. When Pal met Wells, it was nothing short of magic.
The War of the Worlds is available on Blu-ray from Criterion now.
Featured Image: Criterion/Peter Leger