Blu-ray Review: The War of the Worlds | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, January 23rd, 2021  

The War of the Worlds

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jul 14, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The story in H.G. Wells’ groundbreaking 1898 novel, by this point, should be well-known by most science fiction fans, whether it’s from the classic source material or its many, many varying degrees of loose adaptations—be they Orson Welles’ apocryphally panic-inducing radio broadcast, the beloved Edward Gorey-illustrated edition, or that Tom Cruise movie from 2005. For many, though, the definitive take is Byron Haskin and George Pal’s Technicolor version produced by Paramount in 1953.

Paramount has recently undertaken a ground-up restoration of the film, and this Blu-ray will look like a revelation for anyone who’s seen it in its prior home video releases—where it looked like, ahem, hot garbage. Years of bad VHS and DVD releases led many of us—myself included—to downplay the special effects: videotape copies made the movie’s colors look muted and murky, while the sharpness of DVD releases made the strings on the war machines all too visible, and the miniatures obvious. The unintended results were a movie that unfairly looked like people playing with toys, which is really how the movie wasn’t supposed to look, was it? After all, War of the Worlds did win an Oscar for its special effects, right?

Thankfully—THANKFULLY—what Paramount’s restoration team did was dig up an original, Technicolor print of the movie to see what audiences would have originally viewed back in 1953. They observed a print that was much darker than successive releases, with vibrant colors and lighting that truly popped. With that knowledge, they went back to the original, three-strip negatives and did their best to replicate the intended image in their digital scans. Afterward, they went and removed strings and other illusion-killing effects that weren’t visible in film prints, but were made all-too-clear in digital scans, to preserve the filmmakers’ intents. Finally, they fleshed out the audio by using the original recorded sound effects, creating a 5.1 mix that they hoped would replicate the stereo mix that some theaters received in 1953, but had been lost.

The results are found here on Criterion’s features-packed release, and they’re breathtaking. There are rare cases where a restoration can prompt a full-scale re-evaluation of a movie, and this is one of them. As seen here, War of the Worlds combines light and color in a way to create that magical, movie look that only the best Technicolor films can. The martians’ war machines no longer like kids’ toys, but interplanetary death machines with their otherworldly shapes, and Christmas tree-colored lights. Not only does this movie look beautiful, but this restoration has somehow made it much more frightening. The aliens are no longer goofy, but truly alien-looking.

This version of The War of the Worlds is very much a product of the atomic age, space-curious era it emerged from. (It’s set in the eerily cheery ‘50s America that the Fallout video game franchise borrows its aesthetic from.) Tonally, it combines the heightened, Fifties melodrama of a Douglas Sirk film with a genuinely scary, end-of-the-world scenario. It’s wonky, yes, but it makes that wholesale destruction of mankind depicted on screen that much more effectively jarring.

After a gorgeous, introductory tour through matte paintings of the planets in our solar system, the movie opens with a mysterious object crashing outside of Smalltown, California. The local yokels view the massive, radioactive meteorite as a potential tourist attraction, until an alien lens emerges, incinerates the three men left to keep an eye on it, and knocks out the town’s power right in the middle of their Saturday night square dance. Fortunately world-renowned nuclear physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (hello, MST3K fans!) was fishing in the nearby lake, and can lend a hand when the martians start wiping out the entirety of the American military.

As mentioned before, the martians are a truly menacing force—slowly hovering across the countryside and through cities, blasting machinery with their explosive heat rays and disintegrating soldiers with their lime-green “skeleton beam.” Yet, even while mankind stands on the brink of destruction, the movie spends plenty of time allowing the hunky, heroic scientist (Gene Barry) to romance the sweet girl-next door (Ann Robinson). Tonally it’s like you dropped Rock Hudson and Doris Day into the middle of Aliens, but that’s part of the movie’s wonky charm.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition is full of extras, including Welles’ iconic radio play, but the star of the show may be its documentary on the movie’s special effects. Experts Ben Burtt and Craig Barron break down how the movie was made, using archival materials from Paramount, and then painstakingly recreating a single shot from the film to figure out the stuff that wasn’t documented. It’s like an episode of MythBusters for a classic science fiction film, and it’s very entertaining. 



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