Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The War of the Worlds (1953), Criterioned

He is the first Dr. Clayton Forrester—the good one, who led Earth’s response to the Martian invasion. In the first great alien invasion movie of the 1950s, Nyby & Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, the fighting spirit of the American military is enough to overcome our unwelcome visitor. In the first and still best film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, mankind displays ingenuity, courage, and compassion, but it will not be enough. Still one of the most influential SF films of all time, Byron Haskin’s Oscar-winning, George Pal-produced 1953 The War of the Worlds releases today in a fancy Criterion Collection edition (which includes Orson Welles notorious radio broadcast).

This War has not one, but two prologues: one is a rousing March of Time-style newsreel, followed by a montage of Chesley Bonestell’s astronomical art that wonderfully evokes the mysterious vastness of our galaxy (as we then understood it), as well as explaining why the Martians chose our planet to conquer. Then a strange meteor crashes somewhere along the Southern California coast, not far from where Dr. Forrester and his colleagues have been camping.

Of course, that was no meteor—it was the first ship of the Martian armada in disguise. Forrester stays in town to examine the surprisingly radioactive space rock once it cools, but he won’t get the chance. At least he spends a pleasant evening with the locals, including USC library of science instructor Sylvia Van Buren and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins. Unfortunately, the Martians start zapping people and power grids during the square dance—and the devastation spreads exponentially as more ships land.

Arguably, Haskin & Pal’s War represents the best use of color in a genre film certainly during the 1950s, but perhaps of all time. The special effects won an Oscar and they continue to shape our visual image of Wells’ alien invasion tale. Like Orson Welles’ radio play and Spielberg’s mediocre remake, Barre Lyndon’s screenplay updates the story to its time of production, but it also departs from Wells’ original in a way that is decidedly for the better. The novel’s knee-jerk hostility to religion is gone, replaced by Lewis Martin’s sympathetic, heroic, and ultimately poignant portrayal of Pastor Collins. Since this is a review for hyperbole, let’s go ahead and say it could be the greatest supporting performance in a science fiction film.

Gene Barry is also convincingly brainy in a charismatic way as Dr. Forrester (whom the MST3K villain was indeed named in honor of). Part of the fun of the early scenes is watching him puzzle things out. Van Buren is disappointingly more passive than Margaret Sheridan in The Thing from Another World (compare and contrast how they pass out coffee), but she and Barry still develop some emotionally resonant chemistry. Plus, Les Tremayne (who would appear several subsequent sf monster movies) adds crisp authority as Gen. Mann.

Sixty-some years later, most of the effects still look good on-screen. Cinematographer George Barnes’ rich, warm color palate definitely helps. If you haven’t seen it recently, re-watch WotW‘53 to see how iconic it really is. Pal gets plenty of credit, but Haskin is under-recognized for his contributions to the genre. He notably returned to Mars with Robinson Crusoe on Mars and the “Invisible Enemy” episode of The Outer Limits, which constitute a compulsively watchable thematic trio. This is a great film, far superior to later takes that totally deserves the Criterion treatment. Very highly recommended, The War of the Worlds releases today (7/7) on Criterion and is also available on the Crackle app.