Home Video Hovel: The War of the Worlds, by David Bax
Byron Haskin’s 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds is a movie perfectly suited to the kind of extensive, high definition restoration we’ve come to expect from the Criterion Collection. Time and familiarity have made the film quaint, its effects obvious and outdated. But blow the dust off it as Criterion has and you’ll find a bold visual treat filled with colors of (literal) otherworldly brilliance and staggeringly cinematic framing choices like the diminutizing high-angle shots that take pity on us insignificant humans.
When a meteor crashes into the woods outside a sleepy San Gabriel Valley town, the locals are lucky enough to have a vacationing scientist on hand, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry in a commanding performance of mumbly, bookish sexiness), who can help them figure out just what the glowing space rock is. Forrester doesn’t get too far, though, before alien craft start emerging from the meteor and vaporizing people. Meanwhile, it turns out, the same thing is happening in towns and cities all over the world.
Despite the B-movie popcorn fun implied, The War of the Worlds is surprisingly bleak. The merciless death offered by the invaders is depicted as gut churningly matter of fact and hopelessness sets in among mankind quickly. Some of the more unfortunately expected genre tropes do remain, though; our female lead, Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), is introduced as a masters degree-bearing scientist in her own right but is soon reduced to screaming and cowering in fear for the rest of the movie.
Perhaps the most upsetting element of The War of the Worlds is the one that will be immediately relatable to viewers today, living in a suspended state of pandemic anxiety. While the military and those like Forrester are actively combating the threat, Haskin makes sure to include multiple shots of the mass of everyone else, watching and waiting, knowing that even the solace offered by their friends, their family and their god will run out when death comes to their door.
Criterion’s new transfer is reportedly a full 4K restoration, with its scan coming from the original Technicolor negatives. It shows. The range and depth of color here is breathtaking and the sharpness and stability make everything look all the more pristine. There are two audio options, the original mono and a 5.1 mix created in 2018.
Special features include an audio commentary featuring film historian Bob Burns, author Bill Warren and none other than Joe Dante; a new featurette on the visual and sound effects; a new featurette on the restoration; a 1970 audio interview with producer George Pal; a making-of documentary; the 1938 Orson Welles radio play of The War of the Worlds; a 1940 radio discussion between Welles and Wells; and an essay by the great J. Hoberman. Seriously, if you were somehow still on the fence about purchasing this disc, these features should absolutely seal the deal.