The Martians Are Coming

I first saw George Pal’s 1953 The War of the Worlds as an 11-year old. It terrified me, but I couldn’t look away. I wasn’t aware at the time that it was based on a book by H.G. Wells, a story that had earlier been adapted by Orson Welles into a 1938 radio drama. The latter had panicked hundreds of adults. Scared as I was in watching the film, I knew it was just a movie. A surprising number of those 1938 listeners thought the broadcast was real.

Both that 1938 broadcast and the 1953 film insured that alien invasions from outer space would become a staple of sci-fi films. Since then the Earth has been attacked from beyond dozens of times in movies, television shows, and even in a 1978 progressive rock album from Jeff Wayne. The results, depending on individual tastes, have ranged from stunning to silly.

But no serious film fan today can deny that the 1953 War of the Worlds is a cult classic. It updates the story from Wells’ Victorian England to mid 20th century California, inevitably altering much of the book’s plot along the way. I currently own two DVD versions. The one to have is the “Special Collector’s Edition,” which includes two commentary tracks, a “Making of” documentary, a theatrical trailer, and the full audio of that 1938 radio broadcast. It’s pricey (over $40 on Amazon as I write this). But the movie alone is also available for streaming from (Amazon) Prime Video and other sources. According to the IMDB website, some of these streaming versions were derived from a new 4K transfer with updated audio. Note to Paramount (or whomever now owns the rights); how about a 4K HDR release. I wouldn’t even object to digitally erasing the wires that are sometimes visible suspending the Martian machines, though purists might!

I’ve only experienced the DVD. Even if the film were available on Blu-ray (and it’s never been released in that format) the original photography, while perfectly fine, will never make you forget Lawrence of Arabia. Framed in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the images are sometimes a bit cramped. It’s a shame they didn’t profit from the then imminent widescreen revolution. If the film had been shot as littler as a year later, it might have (the first CinemaScope release, The Robe was released late in 1953). The War of the Worlds was, however, shot on 3-strip Technicolor and therefore didn’t suffer the color degradation over years in storage that afflicted so many films from later in the decade when new, cheaper, but less durable color processes such as Eastman Color became prevalent.

Despite the film’s 1953 technical limitations I was never put off by its picture quality. Even when projected onto my 87-inch (diagonal) projection screen it was always pleasingly crisp, even as upscaled from DVD’s 480i standard definition. The suspension wires mentioned above were clearly visible in some shots. The sound, while a bit more problematic, was tolerable 2.0 stereo on the special edition. The specs on the disc call it 2.0 surround, but I’d like to know how you can get genuine surrounds from 2 front channels!

Forty-three years later Steven Spielberg directed a 2005 remake. The setting was different and the plot more complex, but the basic story was the same. The reviews were mixed, to say the least, but I’m also a fan of this far more technically impressive version. Even so, however, there’s nothing in Spielberg’s take as iconic, to me, as my first viewing (granted with an 11-year old’s sensibilities) of the original’s ships and heat rays, or the tantalizing if brief glimpses of the all too convincing chicken wire and paper mache alien! Perhaps even Spielberg might feel the same way. The 1953 version’s special effects might appear quaint to today’s eyes, familiar as we are to seeing CGI used today even non-action films. But when we know that virtually anything can be put on film, nothing is then truly amazing. We never ask how they did it, and there’s a certain sadness to that—a loss of innocent wonder in the way we see things.

Alien invasions continue to spawn end-of-the world-as-we-know-it films. Like it or hate it, Independence Day (at least the first one) had its moments, though that computer virus certainly wasn’t one of them! It was also inspired by Wells’ story, though vastly different in the details. Mars Attacks!was just weird, though often hilarious as driven by the loopy vision of director Tim Burton. Battleship was an odd duck, though I admit to a bit of admiration for its creators’ envisioning alien machines that must have weighed hundreds of tons being transported across interstellar space just to invade our little planet. And I might be the only fan on Earth of Battle Los Angeles.

The home of the aliens in the most recent of these films isn’t specified, but even the most science-ignorant filmmakers must realize by now that Mars is an unlikely candidate!

Огромная желтая кошка весом в 50 килограмм - это пума. Пумы в дикой природы представляют опасность для человека.

Traveler's picture

It's not the most faithful version to the book but it's my favorite film version by far.

Marcht9999's picture

You seem a bit behind the times. A beautiful 4K restoration of War of the Worlds has been available for streaming on Itunes/Apple TV for for some time. It’s gorgeous, and the restored Technicolor is stunning! Yes, the Martian machines’ support wires are now undetectably removed, along with dirt, scratches, and other unwanted photochemical flaws. The picture is pristine, and the sound is crisp and clear. Check it out!

Marcht9999's picture
frym's picture

I also think Battle Los Angeles was a pretty good movie.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
I subscribe to both Netflix and Amazon (and thinking about Disney+). But as a reviewer I never use them as prime source material when judging a video display, but rather mainly for testing the streaming quality of a TV's Smart features.

If the restored WOtW ever comes to any of those three platforms, I'm in. But subscribing to every available streaming site is a step too far, an attitude likely shared by many readers. This balkanization of home video could eventually grow more costly to the viewer than the average cable TV bill--if it hasn't already!

That said, if the restored 1953 WOtW comes out on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray I'll be the first in line to buy it and write about it! But the availability of 4K film transfers ONLY via the Internet is an ominous development. Many of us prefer having a movie on a disc we own, sitting on a shelf and available to watch whenever we want and how often we want at no added charge, with no risk of it being deleted from a streaming site for the provider's convenience or the expiration of a contract with a studio.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
The following was sent to me by Peter Tribeman, an industry veteran formerly with Atlantic Technology and now with Outlaw Audio. Interesting stuff!

Patbarr's picture

Cool article. But, Thomas, you don't need to subscribe to iTunes to rent an individual movie. And you can usually purchase it, if you don't mind giving up the hard drive space. I mean, it's not like most Blu-ray movies are packaged as collectibles-- they usually come in the cheapest plastic case available. Anyway, I'm going to look for that one!

wvsage's picture

Criterion has announced a Blu-ray for early to mid summer. But the sci-fi classic that rally needs the Criterion treatment is The Thing From Another world. It has received miserable treatment thus far.

3ddavey13's picture

At least The Thing From Another World got a Blu-ray release. That's more than can be said for another sci-fi classic "Invaders From Mars" which got a miserable 50th Anniversary release on dvd and no BD in sight. I wish Criterion would start releasing 4K BDs. They already scan most of their releases in 4K. Personally I would like to see 4K releases of War of the Worlds, Thing From Another World, and Forbidden Planet. I'll be amazed if I see even one of them.

3ddavey13's picture

Picked up Criterion's BD of War Of The Worlds back in July. As one would expect the restoration is excellent. One thing that threw me after watching this film on Encore about two years ago was the 1.37:1 aspect ratio (Encore aired it in widescreen). Even in 4:3 this film looks great. One nice addition is a 5.1 dts-HD MA soundtrack. The surrounds really come alive during action scenes but are inactive when not needed (my ML electrostatic speakers sport small blue LEDs which are lit when active. They were out for the bulk of this film). For some reason Amazon increased the price of disc $10 the week after I bought it so you may want to shop around. My only complaint is Criterion should have released it in 4K with Dolby Vision.