|War of the Worlds, The (1953)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 20 April 1999|
There is a reason that cliches become cliches -- at one point in time, everything that now strikes us as trite was so new, brilliant and earthshaking that everybody tried to imitate it at once. Seeing the 1953 ‘The War of the Worlds’ now is to be reminded of where many touchstones of contemporary science-fiction film (and TV) came from. The movie illustrates why some elements simply can’t be done any more with a straight face and why some elements remain staples of the genre.
When it was first published in 1898, H.G. Wells’ novel about an invasion of Earth by hostile Martians scared readers who couldn’t imagine what an airplane would look like, much less an alien spacecraft. Forty years later, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation was done with such straight-faced sincerity that unnerved listeners fled their homes, convinced that an invasion from space was really underway. By the time producer George Pal, director Byron Haskin and screenwriter Barre Lyndon brought forth the film version in 1953, audiences were perhaps a bit less easy to panic, but still clearly made a lasting impression.
‘War’ begins with stern narration that reminds us of the carnage or World Wars I and II (complete with black-and-white newsreel footage) before the footage bursts ominously into color as the narrator explains in poetic, scientific terms why no other planet in our solar system is suitable for Martian invasion. The rest of the film chronicles the reactions of the scientific and military communities from the moment an extraterrestrial object is discovered outside Los Angeles, through the seemingly unstoppable attack on Earth’s major cities to the deus ex machina conclusion.
The colors in the DVD transfer succeed in retaining their ‘50s radioactive pulsing hues, though the print occasionally shows blotches of both white and red. The sound in Chapter 1 is fine, but lowers in Chapter 2 -- not critically, but enough to prompt a volume adjustment -- before climbing back up for the big special effects sequences.
The effects in Chapter 12 would be impressive even now if done on a budget, a combination of actual fire, optical effects and model work that blend excitingly in the frame as the Martians level Los Angeles. Some aspects of ‘War of the Worlds’ seem preposterous today -- the heroine (Ann Robinson) with her never-mussed makeup and her shrieking fits, the atomic blast that doesn’t affect witnesses near enough to feel the wind from the shock wave and, most tellingly, the absolute lack of irony. However, whether the images of hovering spaceships blasting colorful laser death rays at urban skyscrapers is familiar to you from having seen the original before or from the countless cinematic borrowings that came later, a shock of recognition is inevitable. ‘War of the Worlds’ remains moving because everything about it testifies to how one imagination can inform another which can inform a multitude, down through a century and three different mediums.