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Though it's dated in spots, The War of the Worlds retains an unnerving power, updating H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi tale to the Cold War era and featuring some of the best special effects of any 1950s film.
All Critics (27)
| Top Critics (5)
| Fresh (23)
| Rotten (4)
| DVD (10)
As the perfect crystallization of 50s ideology the film would be fascinating enough, but the special effects in this 1953 George Pal production also achieve a kind of dark, burnished apocalyptic beauty.
War of the Worlds is a socko science-fiction feature, as fearsome as a film as was the Orson Welles 1938 radio interpretation of the H.G. Wells novel.
Mind those heat rays!
Too bad about the wooden cast, the tackily conventional romance, and a draggy religious message; but at least, given the time it was made, it isn't imbued with Cold War hysteria.
A half-century after its creation, the film's best moments are still so enjoyably unnerving that they easily carry a viewer through the necessary but inevitably dated exposition.
Understandably well-remembered, but its status as a high classic seems more incidental than earned.
Some grisly and scary parts. Not for young 'uns.
Definitely a sci-fi classic from the 1950s...great George Pal effects.
Though it's bogged down by a stiff cast, a yawn-inspiring conventional romance, and a sappy religiosity, it remains a landmark in the history of special effects.
For a movie that already succeeded in scaring the Grape Nehi out of every ten-year-old in the audience, how disquieting it must have been for the Cold War-agitated grownups to witness U.S. might, tanks and A-bombs alike, brushed away helpless...
H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds is probably one of the most famous and influential science fiction stories in literature. The story has spawned films, radio dramas, TV adaptations, comic adaptations, videogames and even a record album. One of the lesser known works highly influenced by Wells work would be 'The Tripods' by John Christopher. This itself was adapted into a BBC TV series in 1984 which has since developed a strong cult following.
Of course the most infamous adaptation was a live radio broadcast narrated by Orson Wells in 1938. The story was presented in a news broadcast fashion which in turn led to many many listeners actually thinking it was real. Can't blame them really, if you think about it back then the radio was all people had. No internet, very little television, and what was on TV would have been extremely limited. So if a serious sounding news bulletin comes on informing you about destruction from unidentified objects, chances are you'd believe it.
But its this 1953 movie that is probably the most well known adaptation of Wells story the world over. Not only was this a loose but solid adaptation of the book, it was also an excellent science fiction film in its own right. For the time this movie was groundbreaking with its special effects, effects that earned the team an Academy Award in 1954. What is incredible is looking back you'd think the effects would be pretty hokey these days (much like many sci-fi movies of the era), but surprisingly they still hold up relatively well.
Of course the film is adorably cheesy and quaint, can't avoid that. The feature begins with the typically standard 1950's sci-fi narration accompanied with black and white stock footage. This footage shows us military technology as it progresses through the years, mainly through both world wars. It then cuts to colour with the movies title and then to a series of matte paintings of every known planet in our solar system. The narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) informs us about each planet and its hostile environment, basically why the martian invaders would want Earth (but how would the narrator know this? Is the movie a story being told to someone by the narrator? Is the whole ordeal a flashback?). Anyway my point being the film unfortunately still relies on stock footage but also includes some lovely matte paintings.
The meat of the effects comes with the alien invaders themselves, although there were issues. Obviously for starters we all know the classic look of the Martian machines, huge towering tripods. Well at the time the effects crew had problems trying to create the three-legged machines so it was decided to alter the design. I have never really been happy with this look though, I realise there were technical limitations at the time so I'm not angry or anything, but the Martian machines just looked awful in my opinion. They essentially looked like a hovering, crescent shaped platform with a long periscope sticking out on top. They never really looked intimidating to me, more flimsy and fragile, and the green colour scheme was just ugly.
To make matters worse (in my humble opinion) the effects team did actually include the tripod legs...only they were force field legs and invisible. If you strain hard enough you can actually see the imprints (with a small pyrotechnic touch) in the ground as the machines move. Alas these look more like small explosions from shells or whatever than imprints from tripod legs. You can also see the wires holding the machines up in some scenes, which was amusing.
Indeed the chaos and destruction seen on the movies posters are well imagined in the film. The model Martian machines slowly hover down city streets (some live action, some models), their wires quivering. At every opportunity they unleash their devastating heat-rays from their cobra shaped periscopic eyes. Brilliant flashes of white heat that reduce damn near everything to rubble. Oddly though, at first the heat-rays reduce military equipment, vehicles and men to either piles of white or black charred ash (or just nothing at all). Yet when they take to the city streets the same doesn't seem to happen to buildings, they just crumble and catch fire. Theoretically there should be nothing left standing other than mounds of charred ash. Everything you see is a frantic blur of various effects such as superimposing, models, stock footage, matte paintings etc...That along with the terrific sounds effects for the alien weaponry (think [i]Star Trek: TOS[/i] photon torpedoes) and you have some great sequences of action.
The actual aliens themselves were a real achievement also. The level of detail on the rubber puppet was incredible for the time. It had veins, skin texture, skin folds, and it was moist which gave it a more realistic 'living' look. Sure they look silly now but considering this was all done in 53 its extremely impressive for the time. I think the one main visual flaw for me was the ridiculous looking, large three-hued (red, green and blue) eye they had. The actual shape of the aliens body, their short stocky torsos with long thin arms and three thin suction cup fingers, was all perfect, quite scary for the time. The sequence where Dr. Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) are holed up in an abandoned house, only to be met by one of the little aliens during the night, was executed excellently. I'm very sure that had viewers screaming back in the day. But alas that big colourful bug eye looked like a kids toy from the 80's. It was neat to give the aliens this unique vision, but the three coloured lens sections looked a bit daft to me.
Of course this being 50's America you know it wouldn't take long before the Yanks would break out their Atomic weaponry. Although lets be fair here, the humans get their asses handed to them on a plate. But there is a really effective build in tension as the Americans blast the aliens with everything they have, including nukes. But still the Martian machines keep coming, protected by their amusing bell jar shaped force fields. Eventually the military leaders realise they cannot stop the invaders, the fate of the human race lies in Gods hands (not literally). Its actually quite a haunting solemn moment.
This again leads to another element of the film I don't really like. After getting separated the main duo (Forrester and Buren) meet up again in a church (now in LA). The Martian machines loom down on the church as they tear through the streets, nothing can stand in their way, not even the house of God. But low and behold just before they are about to destroy the church, the alien crafts falter and come crashing down. Of course I'm sure everyone knows why now, but the fact that its implied there may have been divine intervention from up above that saved the Earth (and that church) is somewhat off-putting. The idea that bacteria infected and killed the Martians was always a brilliant move, genius. Its also perfectly normal to accept that if something like this did happen in reality, there would of course be a lot of religious rhetoric flying around no doubt. But to end this exceptional sci-fi on the notion that mankind was kinda saved by God just sours the fun.
Whilst I recognise the brilliance of this film in everything it achieves, I can't quite bring myself to say its a perfect movie. Yes it is one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made and it does still hold up today, but the few issues I have with this adaptation I cannot ignore. I think the main peeve for me will always be the look of the Martian machines, I just can't stand the fact they don't have tripod legs. Any imagery you see of towering alien tripods is just so instantly recognisable and evocative, it pains me that they are absent in this film. Nevertheless there is a good balance between the action and exposition scenes. Its not bogged down and boring, its actually a really tense and eerie affair, and you do genuinely care about the main cast (all of which do sterling work I might add). End of the day despite its small flaws, this is an absolute must see for all ages.
Extremely dated with mind-numbingly wooden acting. Some of the special effects are kinda nice to look at but their is not enough set pieces to hide the thin and uninspired pseudo-documentary screenplay. The religious overtone that comes out of nowhere in the end is face-palmingly over-the-top. The characters are cardboard cut-outs and the pacing is slower than the flying saucers. The aliens look atrociously silly because of their eyes which look like glowing "Simon-Says" toys. Not quite sure why this dumb excuse for a popcorn flick is considered a classic. However I will give the movie credit, it gave me and my friends some great laughs.
Could not help but contrast the original to the Spielberg/Cruise version. Besides the difference that fifty years make, the original film focuses more on the alien takeover of the planet and their aggression, rather than on the emotional aspects of survival that the latter film made the central point. This version does follow a scientist and his female colleague as they try to combat deadly otherworld weaponry with everything from tanks to the atom bomb, all of which are obliterated by the superior beings' lasers and firing mechanisms. Instead of leaving us in the dark to the world's whereabouts like the remake, the original holds a British narration and stock footage from World War Two to show the world spectrum and the devastation that's being caused. The Technicolor contrast was crisp, the color reminiscent of museum dioramas. Still, the film doesn't deal with any real human fears or struggle for survival until the last twenty minutes of the film, once all options are exhausted and hysteria takes hold, making mobs out of the remaining citizens of large metropolises. There are some heart wrenching sequences, but it was very long-winded and boring in the beginning, which can't be made up for. Plus, the female heroine of the film is described as intelligent with a Masters in library sciences, but when trouble comes a calling she shrieks, puts her hand to her temple, and flashes her false eyelashes up at any macho hunk nearby. And the ending, which I won't give away, feels like a blatant copout. It's a quick fix to a problem that's supposedly so big it's unstoppable. There are also many religious overtones as a ploy, unlike the book written by H.G. Wells, a speculated atheist. Still, it was enjoyable as long as I paid attention to the alien ships and not the tiresome humans.
It's a common complaint that American adaptations of British novels lose the quintessential nature of their source in favour of something more glossy and marketable. That's certainly true of The War of the Worlds, the first attempt to put H. G. Wells' iconic novel up on screen, and the first to come in the shadow of Orson Welles' ground-breaking radio play. It's not as tense as Welles' version, or as enjoyable as Steven Spielberg's take, but it is a perfectly passable adaptation with a number of strong points.
The film starts off with our narrator (played by English character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke) guiding us on a whistle-stop tour through the solar system. He explains the hostile nature of other planets' atmospheres, concluding that if the Martians should invade anywhere, it would have to be Earth. The Martians are presented as an intelligent race, and we are to some extent shown the build-up to the invasion from their point of view.
Having started promisingly, it isn't long before some of the film's budgetary constraints become apparent. Like a lot of B-movies, the film is heavily reliant on stock footage during its bigger, more action-packed moments. Its re-use of the same shots of cannons firing and tanks rolling into battle make it seem like an ad campaign for the American army. In the middle of the film there is also a montage of destruction and chaos intercut with footage of the actors, a technique which would later be used to perfection in the opening sequence of Mad Max 2.
On the other hand, we have the special effects of the aliens. This is the element which Byron Haskin and his team had to get right, and generally speaking, they did. The swan-shaped copper aliens were specifically designed not to resemble flying saucers, and in the wide shots especially they are pretty threatening. They are not, however, tripods as detailed in the book; rather than walking (which is difficult to replicate mechanically), the war machines float via beams of blue light, which at the very least distract us from the wire work.
But while the war machine designs are truly out of this world, the Martians themselves are disappointing human. The faces of the Martians, which are replicated in their periscopes, are made up of red, blue and green panels, which are arranged to vaguely resemble the outline of a human face - the red panel is at the bottom to denote a mouth, and the blue and green panels above it could easily be eyes. As is so often the case, the aliens in The War of the Worlds look most sinister from a distance - when a Martian touches our heroine on the shoulder, it's a bit pathetic.
This version of The War of the Worlds deviates sharply from the novel in a number of ways, some interesting and successful, others less so. Most obviously, the action is relocated from 1890s Woking to 1950s California, and in doing so a lot of the substance of Wells' novel is lost. So much of the original story is about turning the accepted British political and social attitudes on their heads by portraying a war in which the British are the victims of an invasion rather than the conquerors. British imperialism, Herbert Spencer's natural selection and the 'English way of life' are all held under the microscope and shown to be ruthless and unjust.
By transferring the story to America, as Welles had done, The War of the Worlds becomes more about the Cold War and American fears of 'Reds under the beds'. Some of this substance fits quite nicely around the original plot: the Martians, who come from 'the Red planet', are demonstrated to be highly organised and efficient, and working collectively towards a single goal. But even as bald allegory goes, it's not as satisfying an examination of Communist threat as Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (which itself is trumped by the 1970s version by Philip Kaufman).
More frustratingly, the film makes big concessions to melodrama. We are required, for instance, to believe that Gene Barry is a famous and highly intelligent scientist, despite the fact that he looks every bit as chisel-jawed and rugged as Charlton Heston. When Ann Robinson's character questions him about this, he says that he shaved his beard off before coming to town and so no longer resembles his photo on the cover of Time. As laughable excuses go, it's up there with the line in The Hunt for Red October in which Sean Connery's unique accent is explained away by saying he is Lithuanian.
Being an old Hollywood film, the role of women is, shall we say, restricted. Robinson is required to scream and be hysterical on cue, while all the men around here can be noble, restrained and carry out a plan of action. While the male leads dash around the bunker, planning their attack on the Martians, she is left to hand up cups of coffee; and after the couple have sheltered in a tumbledown house, she makes Barry his breakfast first thing in the morning. The film may not be as sexist as The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but it's hardly pushing the envelope when it comes to female roles.
Despite these contrivances, however, we find ourselves bonding to these characters and staying with them for the course of the film. Although their introduction might be slightly silly, they are generally well-drawn and sympathetic. We certainly care about them enough to worry that they might get separated and never see each other again, as happens in the last twenty minutes when the film really girds its loins and shows human society on the verge of collapse. Critics of The War of the Worlds have written the story off as people running away for 90 minutes, but these scenes are both visually spectacular and emotionally engrossing.
The film is at its most interesting when it taps into the characters trying to cope with the invasion and depicting the surrounding chaos. Aside from the street scenes in which men are turning on men and money has become worthless, there are a number of moments of genuine panic or alarm which stick in one's mind. The scene of the vicar wandering out to meet the Martians while reciting Psalm 23 will have you on edge, as will the feeling of desperation after the aliens survive an atomic bomb.
As with all productions of The War of the Worlds, we eventually have to face one of the anticlimactic endings in literature. Having the aliens being killed by bacteria is a classic deus ex machina, drawing the action to a convenient close through a plot device which is deeply unsatisfying. But rather than go the way of The Blob or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and leave us on a daring cliff-hanger, this adaptation takes the original ending and manages to fudge it further.
Wells was a scientific socialist who believed in rational progress towards a better society. In the book, our narrator takes shelter with a priest who loses his mind and meets a sticky end: the rational survive, the irrational do not. But Haskin and his screenwriter Barré Lyndon (an obvious but witty pseudonym) fudge this by inserting religious themes. Just before the Martians start falling out of the sky, the survivors are gathered in a church praying for a miracle. The narrator explains that "humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this earth.". Suggesting after such carnage that God was involved all the time simply doesn't cut the mustard in this context.
The War of the Worlds is perfectly passable tosh. It doesn't have the political balls or ambition of Orson Welles' version, and it deviates from its source so wildly that purists will be annoyed. But there is enough schlocky B-movie charm in it to entertain for its short running time, and those who are not fans of Spielberg's version will probably enjoy this more. It's nothing to write home about, but as 1950s B-movies go it has lasted and dated surprisingly well.
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