***/**** Image A Sound B Extras A+
starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
screenplay by Barré Lyndon, based on the novel by H.G. Wells
directed by Byron Haskin
by Walter Chaw Opening with a newsreel and ending with a peculiar bit of religiosity, Byron Haskin's (really George Pal's) The War of the Worlds runs the gamut of H.G. Wells's seminal bit of seriocosmic/pseudo-scientific allegory, assaulting colonialism by dooming spoilers to strange diseases in faraway places. You could call it "God;" I think Wells would have called it "kismet." In any case, the business in-between in this The War of the Worlds was as visually dazzling for its time as Steven Spielberg's frightening and reprehensible 9/11 redux version is for ours, and it holds the same sort of micro/macro fascination of Armageddon courtesy mysterious beings raining death from above. Obviously a cold war parable, the film arguably has as its best quality its sound design, which finds through an ominous thrum of silence a rattlesnake rattle in the noise the baddies produce once they finally emerge from their smouldering crater. It was the stuff of nightmares for me when I caught it on Saturday afternoon television as a child; revisiting it for a film series and now in conjunction with the long-awaited re-release of the film on DVD, I find most interesting the fact that screeching little girl Dakota Fanning replaces the Ann Robinson character in the remake in what can only be described as a horizontal substitution.
A crowd hears something smashing into a distant hill while milling around outside a movie theatre, and with the entire film shot on a distinctly artificial soundstage there is about The War of the Worlds a sense of insular self-awareness. Whether that's something attached to it after the fact with post-modern eyes (most likely) or a product of a contemporaneous satirical vibe is irrelevant to an appreciation of the film. The use of an electric guitar on full reverb as the sound effect of the Martian ray, on the other hand, strikes me as something irreducibly prickly in cultural retrospect. What could be more evil and strange in 1953 than Les Paul? So much of the picture has dated poorly (the noble scientist/hero and the dialogue, in particular, have become self-parodies), but its third-act scenes of absolute civil collapse still evoke dread and, sadly, no small amount of recognition. A moment where a boy and a dog simultaneously scavenge an overturned ice cream cart goes a long way towards illustrating this idea that civilization is a tenuous agreement. For all its powerful moments, though, The War of the Worlds is peculiarly Fifties-bound--the grandfather, in fact, of films like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, where order is restored through a good old-fashioned belief in God, country, mom, and apple pie. The Sixties corollary of this kind of film is Night of the Living Dead for a look at how far we've come and how far we've sprung right back, wringing our hands and twisting our panties all the way.
Paramount reissues The War of the Worlds on DVD in a Special Collector's Edition complete with an optimal transfer of the film. Mastered from recently restored elements, the fullscreen image is gorgeous, its saturated, lurid comic-book colours as vibrant as faux-life. It's so good, in fact, that the backdrops and studio-scale are seen in stark, sometimes harsh, relief. If you read it from a pomo perspective as an artifact of a certain period, then that can only help the intellectual impact of the piece, but if you're looking for an immersive experience, you might have a tougher time with this quality of presentation. Though the film's original two-channel stereo mix returns to the fold here, it's not appreciably superior to the Dolby 2.0 mono alternative.
The second of two commentary tracks features Joe Dante, author Bill Warren (Keep Watching the Skies!), and historian Bob Burns. Lively and full of errata, if not too much useful criticism or context beyond "this scared me when I was a kid" (see above for my identical contribution to this conversation), it's the preferred option over the first commentary reuniting stars Robinson and Gene Barry, who do better than you'd expect (especially Robinson, who's evidently boned up for this project) but still just provide the usual behind-the-scenes stories. ("This is a dub," "I didn't audition well," and so on.) Indeed, Barry might as well have stayed home. Of minor interest, it appears that these tracks were recorded prior to the release of Spielberg's picture, with the second commentary going so far as to express hope that scenes of urban mayhem will be replicated with fidelity by the current master of on-screen mayhem. I did enjoy an anecdote wherein Robinson amazes James Cameron with the story of how they made the alien arm deflate at the end of the picture--not because it makes Cameron seem naïve, but because it confirms that the film touches on some very fond childhood memories.
"The Sky is Falling: The Making of War of the Worlds" (30 mins.) brings back the quintet of commentators for rough recaps of their yak-track contributions. Nevertheless, the piece is nigh indispensable for collecting in one place the Mercury Theater's radio broadcast and its fallout in addition to well-traveled stories involving Ray Harryhausen's desire to do the Tripods as stop-motion (Harryhausen's super-cool animation test is included herein) thwarted by Cecil B. DeMille. (We're even treated to clips from Pal's Puppetoons.) Robinson's discussion of two deleted scenes (not shown) is interesting, too. All in all: superlative. "H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction" (11 mins.) sees Nicholas Meyer (writer-director of Time After Time, featuring Malcolm McDowell as Wells) and others giving a brief overview of Wells's speculative/political work, spiced with archival footage of Wells speaking for himself. It's not in-depth, but it does cover most of the bases. Orson Welles's 1938 broadcast, living in infamy, lives again as an audio supplement (60 mins.), while the film's original theatrical trailer (remastered nicely) plus trailers for "Star Trek: The Original Series" Season 3 and "The 4400" Season 1 round out this exceptional platter. Originally published: March 7, 2006.