The War of the Worlds (1953)

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Criterion;
Sci-Fi;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Carnthwaite, Lewis Martin.

Producer George Pal’s 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is such a seminal film in the history of science-fiction that it’s practically a requirement for any self-respecting fan of the genre to include in their collection.

Surprisingly, however, the film hadn’t been released on Blu-ray until this gorgeous new edition from the Criterion Collection, sourced from a 2018 restoration of the film prepared by Paramount for digital release. The project included a massive clean-up of the original film elements plus the creation of a new 5.1 audio track by legendary sound engineer Ben Burtt.

The film itself took quite a long time to make it to the big screen — nearly 30 years — as the project kept passing from one noted director to the next. By the time it ended up with George Pal, one of the most notable British producers of the day, and director Byron Haskin, the story had been tweaked from an invasion of Victorian England as in Wells’ original text to a contemporary (for the time) setting and an initial landing near Los Angeles (Orson Welles’ 1938 radio version had similarly updated the story for the times, with the landing taking place in New Jersey). The 1950s setting aligned the film with the paranoia of nuclear war and the burgeoning Cold War.

As a result, the film became a major hit for Paramount and one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made, achieving a scope for the day that dared other movies to top it.

Surprisingly, the film’s run time is only 85 minutes, a brisk pace that encompasses a recap of both world wars, a quick tour of the planets of the solar system and why the Martians would choose Earth, the crash landing of the Martian craft and call to the top human scientists to study it, deployment of the military in response to the alien ships emerging and attacking everything they see, a sojourn into a local farmhouse that the aliens explore, a feckless nuclear strike against the aliens, a full-scale attack on the world’s cities by the alien ships, and the aliens suddenly dying due to their lack of immunity to Earth bacteria, the key plot twist taken straight from Wells’ book (and apologies for the spoilers to anyone so far behind on the times they didn’t already know that).

The film’s Oscar-winning visual effects are so iconic in their depiction of the attacks that the template was preserved almost precisely for later remakes such as 1996’s Independence Day, which upped the scope of the landmarks it was able to take out, but continued the tradition of updating the setting to modern times, as did Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version.

One key advantage of the restoration was the return of the original three-strip Technicolor process to render the final image. Over the years, Paramount began replicating the film using inferior but more cost-effective Eastman color prints, resulting in color degradation and making it much easier to see the piano wires holding up the floating alien ships (plainly visible in the 2005 DVD edition of the film). The new restoration restores the proper color balance that obscures the wires, if not hide them completely. Using computer effects to erase the wires altogether was ruled out by the restoration team, according to the bonus materials, because they wanted to stay true to depicting the filmmaking techniques of the time.

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The effects, which might seem quaint now, were revolutionary for the time, using a mix of miniature sets and early bluescreen mattes. The model work allows for some impressive shots of alien fleets floating through the streets of Los Angeles. The bluescreen work is a bit less effective, leaving the ships looking somewhat transparent and standing out against the backdrops. Many of these process shots have at least been cleaned up by the HD transfer.

Almost as big an improvement is the 5.1 audio mix, which just provides a booming sound showcasing all of the film’s iconic sound effects. It’s a much fuller audio experience than the original monaural track, which also is included.

In terms of extras, the Criterion edition offers a healthy mix of new and old, but doesn’t quite offer everything that was previously released.

Among the new extras are a 21-minute featurette about the restoration process, as well as a 30-minute featurette about the history of the film’s visual and audio effects, which even includes a demonstration of re-creating the sound effects to complete a visual effects outtake from the original film.

Another section of the extras includes the original audio broadcast of the Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama, plus a fascinating 24-minute 1940 audio interview between Welles and H.G. Wells, in which they plus Citizen Kane and discuss the potential for America to enter World War II.

Another bit of archival audio contains excerpts of a George Pal Q&A at the American Film Institute in 1970.

Carried over from the old DVD includes a commentary with filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns and writer Bill Warren. There’s also the 2005 documentary “The Sky is Falling,” a 30-minute retrospective about the making of the film.

Not included from the 2005 DVD are a commentary with stars Gene Berry and Ann Robinson, and a featurette about H.G. Wells’ influence on science-fiction. So collectors might want to hold onto their old DVDs if they still want those extras.

Criterion Sets ‘Marriage Story,’ ‘War of the Worlds’ For Blu-ray in July

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray slate for July 2020 will include the 1953 sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds, 2019 Oscar winner Marriage Story, Preston Sturges’ 1941 screwball classic The Lady Eve, and 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry.

The War of the Worlds, adapted from the H.G. Wells alien invasion novel by producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin, arrives on Blu-ray Disc and DVD July 7 with a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, and a new alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack created by sound designer Ben Burtt and presented in DTS-HD master audio on the Blu-ray.

The film stars Gene Barry as a nuclear physicist and Ann Robinson as a librarian who attempt to help the military fight off a devastating Martian attack on Earth’s cities. The Technicolor film received an Oscar for its special effects. The story was continued in a 1980s TV series with Robinson returning as her character.

Extras on the Criterion edition of The War of the Worlds include an audio commentary from 2005 featuring filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns and author Bill Warren; “Movie Archaeologists,” a new program on the visual and sound effects in the film featuring Burtt and film historian Craig Barron; “From the Archive,” a new program about the film’s restoration featuring Barron, Burtt and Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas; an audio interview with producer George Pal from 1970; “The Sky Is Falling,” a 2005 documentary about the making of the film; The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds from 1938, directed and narrated by Orson Welles; a radio program from 1940 featuring a discussion between Welles and H.G. Wells; the film’s trailer; and an essay by film critic J. Hoberman.

The War of the Worlds

Due July 14 on Blu-ray Disc and DVD is The Lady Eve, written and directed by Preston Sturges, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. The Criterion version includes a new 4K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray.

Aboard a cruise liner sailing up the coast of South America, Stanwyck’s conniving card sharp sets her sights on Fonda’s nerdy snake researcher, who happens to be the heir to a brewery fortune. But when the con artist falls for her mark, her grift becomes a game of hearts-and she is determined to win it all.

Lady Eve extras include audio commentary from 2001 featuring film professor Marian Keane; an Introduction from 2001 by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; an Interview from 2020 with Sturges biographer and son Tom Sturges and friends; a new video essay by film critic David Cairns; costume designs by Edith Head; a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1942 featuring Stanwyck and Ray Milland; an audio recording of “Up the Amazon,” a song from an unproduced stage musical based on the film; and an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1946 profile of Sturges from Life magazine.

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Marriage Story, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress for Laura Dern, arrives on Blu-ray Disc and DVD July 21. The Netflix original movie from writer-director Noah Baumbach stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Oscar-nominated performances as a couple whose marriage falls part, with Dern playing a divorce lawyer. The cast also includes Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty and Ray Liotta. The film earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

The Marriage Story Criterion edition includes a new 4K digital transfer supervised by Baumbach, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Extras include a new interview with Baumbach; “The Players,” a new program featuring interviews Johansson, Driver, Dern, Alda, Hagerty and Liotta; “The Filmmakers,” a new program about the production of the film, featuring interviews with Baumbach, editor Jennifer Lame, production designer Jade Healy, costume designer Mark Bridges and producer David Heyman; “The Making of Marriage Story, a new program featuring behind-the-scenes footage; new interviews with composer Randy Newman and Baumbach about the film’s score; a new program featuring Baumbach walking the viewer through a key location from the film; trailers; and notes on the film by novelist Linn Ullmann.

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The first Iranian film to win the Palme d’Or (shared with The Eel), director Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry arrives on Blu-ray July 21 with a new 4K digital restoration, a new English subtitle translation and uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The drama follows the middle-aged Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he drives around the hilly outskirts of Tehran looking for someone who will agree to dispose of his body after he commits suicide, a taboo under Islam. Extended conversations with three passengers (a soldier, a seminarian, and a taxidermist) elicit different views of mortality and individual choice.

Extras include Project, Kiarostami’s 39-minute 1997 sketch film for Taste of Cherry, made with the director’s son Bahman; a new interview with Iranian film scholar Hamid Naficy; a rare 1997 interview with Kiarostami, conducted by Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami; the film’s trailer; and an essay by critic A. S. Hamrah.

Criterion previously announced the July 14 release of the Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits Blu-ray boxed set collecting five kung-fu classics starring the international martial-arts legend.