Monday, July 4, 2011

War of the Worlds (1953): Dated now, but well ahead of its time

War of the Worlds (1953) (Action, Horror, Sci-Fi)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson and Les Tremayne

Paramount Pictures | 1953 | 85 min | Rated G | Released Apr. 20, 1999

The Film 4/5

War of the Worlds won an Oscar for Best Special Effects and was nominated for Best Film Editing and Best Sound. That’s somewhat hard to believe now, but I imagine that the effects did look advanced in 1953. Looking at the movie now, it’s obvious that the backdrop is fake. Martian machines are clearly held up by wires and the acting is terrible by modern standards, but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t work.

The story begins with what’s thought to be a meteor strike in California, but it turns out to be nothing of the sort. The opening monologue tells us that beings from Mars covet Earth for its mild climate and abundance of water. Three locals see a hatch in the “meteor” unscrew and a snake-like head emerges. The music in this scene is overly dramatic, but it somehow works. As it’s the 1950s, the three men can’t call the police on their phones, so they decide to investigate on their own and are killed by a burst of fire from the strange machine.

Meanwhile, the lights and phones in town all stop working and everyone’s watch stops at the same time. It’s clear that something unusual is happening. Although I have pointed out how bad the effects look now, there’s still plenty of tension. I always find myself wanting to see what will happen next. The original radio broadcast of the story (by Orson Welles in 1938) had many Americans thinking that the attack was real. So, remember that the story was original when the movie was first shown. Audiences weren’t conditioned to believe that any visiting aliens were automatically malevolent.

A local professor, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Barry) happens to be on hand. He advises the police to call in the military. One of the better scenes involves speculation about what a Martian might look like. It takes into account everything we know about Mars. How would Earth’s gravity affect a Martian? What about the composition of the air or the temperature? Unfortunately, few of the scenes contain that level of authenticity.

Sylvia (Robinson), a young woman who is familiar with Forrester’s work, meets him at the crash site. This eventually develops into a romantic interest. Her uncle is a priest and all three are allowed to contribute as the military try to devise a plan of action. I can’t imagine that happening today. The priest ignores everyone’s wishes and decides that diplomacy is the best course of action. He speculates that as a more advanced species, Martians would naturally be closer to the creator. I can’t imagine a more controversial topic than that one. Would God favor one planet’s inhabitants over another? Did He create everything, or just us? I’m not touching that one.

In any event, the priest doesn’t get the reaction he’s hoping for.

As the plot develops, the military assumes a bigger role. Various methods are tried, but the Martian machines seem unharmed. Nuclear weapons fail to stop the machines and it’s clear that some kind of invasion is taking place. If the Martians want the Earth, why do they attempt to destroy everything? Why don’t any of the humans attempt to take over the machines and use them to fight back?

Dr. Forrester proves to be suitable hero material. He’s not only quick-witted, he’s able to fly a plane. The story develops into what looks like a hopeless struggle for humanity, and we’re shown what happens to Forrester and Sylvia.

The H. G. Wells novel was written in 1898 and was considerably ahead of its time, just like the movie. The idea that impresses me the most is revealed in the conclusion of the story. How would such a potent force, seemingly impervious to any weapons Earth has to offer, ever be defeated? Wells’ resolution was brilliantly conceived. It doesn’t play out well as a movie, because the end is so abrupt, but the idea itself is the most interesting idea in the entire story.

War of the Worlds looks dated. Would you expect anything else from a movie made in 1953? But, despite the cheesy story, there’s enough originality to make it an important movie. I still enjoy it and completely understand why Steven Spielberg chose to make an updated version in 2005. Try to overlook its obvious faults and think about how you might have reacted if you had been around when it was released.

Click here to see where War of the Worlds ranks among my Top 20 science fiction movies. 

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