When (like myself) you're a fan of the older genre stuff, there are two ways to look at the fever that has gripped Hollywood the last few years, the fever to remake these oldies: you can either be haughty and act aghast, or you can realize that this almost automatically insures that the original will be released on a newly remastered, deluxe disc, a hopeful ploy to cash in on the possible success of the remake. Hence the recent release (finally!) of the original King Kong on DVD, and this brand new offering of George Pal's 1953 version of War of the Worlds.
The movie faced an extraordinarily uphill climb to production; several directors, including Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock, had already made runs at the subject. But it was George Pal, fresh off movies like Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide, that finally made it happen, with his canny ability to combine technology and humanism.
With three-quarters of the movie's considerable - for the time - budget going for special effects, the decision to modernize the story was likely more a budgetary one than aesthetic; thus the average guy narrator of the novel becomes Gene Barry as Clayton Forrester (MST3K fans take note), a double-domed, two-fisted scientist, while the original wife morphs into pretty small town gal Ann Robinson. A lot of H.G. Wells' social commentary similarly goes missing entirely. But a lot of sci-fi action movie tropes get started here, as well as a treasure trove of original sound effects that would continue to appear in movies, TVs and games until the present. Those very same expensive special effects would also cop the Visual Effects Oscar for that year.
In an atmosphere of FX-laden movies, it's hard to comprehend exactly how much of an impact this movie had upon release, but prestige genre productions like this were very rare in Post-War America. Still very entertaining after half a century, this is highly recommended viewing.
War of the Worlds was originally available in a bare-bones disc which I passed up continually because – and I blush to admit this – it was not a widescreen transfer. The truth is, of course, in 1953 TV had not yet become such a threat that Hollywood was forced to invent Cinerama and the like, and the 1.37:1 standard aspect ratio of 35mm film was the norm. Still, though this reasoning was misguided, it proved to be the right choice, as this pressing has resurrected the original, gorgeous, three-strip Technicolor print (earlier video versions were struck from Eastmancolor reprints, during which the wires holding up the models became very visible). The early stereo soundtrack also resurfaced, making this disc the definitive version.
Any extras at all also made this disc worth waiting for, and these are quite nice. There are two documentaries, of the interview-and-clip variety: The Sky is Falling, the obligatory making-of doc, and H.G. Wells: The Father of Science-Fiction, which is quite informative.
The movie itself boasts two audio commentaries. The first, by stars Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, is a bit spotty; Barry is very grandfatherly, frequently falling back on murmered reminisce, but Robinson is very chipper and definitely knows this movie forwards and back. The second is far more dynamic, helmed by director Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and Bill Warren, author of Keep Watching the Skies, the book on 50s science fiction. This track is lively and best of all, full of details on the character actors that positively swarm in this movie, contract players you've seen in dozens of movie and TV shows, but never knew their name.
There is also the standard theatrical trailer, and a pleasant surprise - the complete broadcast of the 1938 radio version of War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the AIr!
That's a lot to fit on a single-sided disc, but Paramount has done it, providing the science-fiction aficionado a must-have addition to his collection.
Dr. Freex, 12/11/2005