July 13, 2020
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
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.
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.