War of the Worlds (1953) Special Edition DVD Review

Setting a standard rarely matched in its decade, the 1953 screen version of The War of the Worlds is one of the true genre classics. Its unforgettable regardless of changes made from the original H.G. Wells novel, becoming its own masterpiece of science fiction. Everything, from the Martian space ship design to the performances of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, make this unforgettable.

Its works on multiple levels, mostly because of the eerie, lethargic, yet never boring build up. The slow reveal of the first Martian craft is a cinema classic, pulled together with fantastic dialogue and cold war fears ("Bombs don't unscrew!"). The freakish sound of the ship charging its deadly ray is forever burned into the minds of those who have seen this masterpiece. The brief, powerful pulsating noise is unlike anything you'll ever hear again.

The entire film is of course based around the special effects, winning an Academy Award. Just for the ship design alone someone deserved accolades. The bright greens, oranges, and blacks combine to make a fierce and strangely believable fighting machine. The swan-like neck maneuvering around to incite fear in whatever it's looking at is a brilliant touch.

One of the stranger moments in the film is the brief appearance of the actual alien(s). It's a creepy, ugly, abomination, and the slow moving hand as it grazes Sylvia's shoulder is another brilliant piece of filmmaking. After that comes the full reveal, and it's almost impossible to figure out what you just saw. It's a bizarre design, with a pulsating head that looks like it contains a brain twice the normal size and colorful window for an eye. It's not mobile and it's not on screen very long which is probably for the better. Still, that brief moment when you realize it's in the same room as the lead characters holds up today.

Pulling off a great performance for the human race is Gene Barry. His demeanor, changing from the intrigued, excited scientist to a lonely, nearly crazed lunatic by the end is pulled off believably. Ann Robinson performs admirably too, screaming as her uncle is one of the first casualties of the alien takeover in one of the classic "scream queen" moments.

The finale is handled with care, narrated ominously by Vittorio Cramer. Staying true to Well's novel, it's a shocking finish if you don't know where the story ends, and the creeping alien hand that signifies it's over is a great touch. It caps one of the best science fiction films ever made, and definitely one of the most memorable of the era (and there's a ridiculous amount of competition). It ranked in on multiple AFI "best of" lists, and it deserves it. (***** out of *****)

This new DVD brings a new transfer, one likely to be as controversial as the first. The Technicolor process that was originally used has been taken over, and in its place is a new color mix. The problem with this and the original DVD release are the strings holding the ships are blatantly obvious. They were impossible to detect in other versions because the color was perfectly adjusted. Here you can count the numerous ropes supporting these ships and providing them with their glow.

On the positive side, those same hues have never looked better. The green tone used to portray the second death ray pouring from the alien attack is beautiful, all be it in a deadly manner. Flesh tones and detail are high, while grain and specks on the print have been cleared. A few shots also seem out of focus, likely because of the special effects style of the day and print degradation. (****)

Likewise, the new 2.0 surround audio will draw some ire from long time fans. The added sound effects, used to achieve slight work for the surround channels and bass, hamper the original mono recording (also a choice). Quite obviously, this 2.0 addition offers depth and fullness to the film's audio, but also makes it known this wasn't done back in 1953. Dialogue exchanges are clean in both. It's a personal choice. (****)

Since the original DVD failed to offer any extras, it's a nice change to see a solid stack of features. Two commentary tracks run over the film. Actors Barry and Robinson supply the first, though Barry says little. It's dominated by Robinson, and she supplies a few nice anecdotes about her bloopers on the set. The second is with Joe Dante (who gave us Gremlins amongst others), Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren. This is an active, informative track as they point out famous character actors in small roles and discuss their first viewings of the film.

The Sky is Falling is the obligatory making of piece running just under a half hour, bringing back the actors for their experiences and how the film came about after numerous false starts. Archival interviews are provided where available for those involved that have passed. There's also a rare clip of Ray Harryhausen animation, which he passed around trying to find a studio to finance the picture before it was taken over by other people.

H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction is a 10-minute piece on the famous author. Its ties to the film are barely note worthy, but this is a nice look at the author from those who have studied his admirable work. A necessary piece follows, the original Orson Wells recording that sent the country into a panic. Rather disappointingly, there's no fast forwarding or pausing available. The disc is over when you view the trailer. (****)

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is how it seems that aspects were slowly pieced together as it was shot. The idea of the ships having tri-pods is evident in the first full reveal of the machines, and then dropped in almost all subsequent scenes. Gene Barry's character makes mention of them too, and it's never spoke of again.

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