H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds had been sitting around optioned by Paramount stretching back to the silent era. Originally intended to be handled by Cecil B. Demille, the film was finally directed by Byron Haskin with much help by special effects guru George Pal.
Just as the now-infamous Orson Welles Mercury Theatre radio production of 1938 had done, this production moves the story out of Victorian England and to America. This time it is in Southern California, where are strange bright object assumed to be a meteorite falls from the sky landing near the small town of Linda Rosa. Pacific Tech scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is one of the onlookers when the meteorite crashes along with Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), the niece of local minister Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). The two strike up a friendship and find themselves investigating what exactly the object is. It isn’t long before they both – and the rest of the townsfolk – realize it’s no meteorite. It’s a Martian invasion!! The clocks have stopped, strange alien creatures are on the attack around the world, and the world’s militaries seem defenseless against the alien weapons and “electronic umbrellas” of alien defenses. Dr. Forrester may be one of the only people who can help defeat the alien menace — assuming he and his new companion can survive.
Shot in stunning three-strip Technicolor, The War of the Worlds was like the Star Wars of its time – George Pal pushed the boundaries of what was possible with visual effects, the colors were dazzling, and the filmmakers were thinking of ways from the beginning of how they could push the techniques forward. There was talk of making the final two reels of the film 3D; there was even research into having the film released in stereo. There were a few limited runs with a “stereo” mix in 1953, but it was really just a setup where the same signal from the monaural mix was sent to speakers throughout the theater and played more loudly to give a more engulfing sound experience.
Combine these stunning technical feats and the subversive sub context running through the film, as with many other 1950s films from the Cold War era, of the Red Scare, made for good box office results and a slew of imitations to follow. Even many decades removed, however, this film holds its own, mores of the times notwithstanding, and the new restoration reviewed here brings the film back to its former, full Technicolor glory the likes of which have not been seen for this film in decades.
This digital 4K restoration was created in 4K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner from the original three-strip Technicolor negatives. Thousands of instances of negative and positive dirt, stains, scratches, streaks, hairs, and emulsion digs and several misregistrations of the YCM film elements were manually repaired using MTI Film’s DRS and Digital Vision’s Phoenix. The film is framed in its original 1.37:1 and encoded in AVC 1080p on Blu-ray from Criterion.
This restoration has been available in a true 4K version with Dolby Vision HDR digitally for a long time and there, one can truly see the full potential of the original Technicolor with the wider color gamut, but this Criterion Blu-ray release is no slouch in comparison. The colors still ‘pop’ brilliantly and we get inky blacks and gorgeous contrast. The grain looks filmic and organic, thinly layered, providing crisp detail.
Criterion provides both the original monaural mix and the 2018 restoration 5.1 mix by Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. The original monaural mix was remastered from preservation magnetic tracks using Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX. The 2018 5.1 mix was remastered from preservation magnetic tracks, several sing-strip monaural music cues, and archival sound effects by Ben Burtt at Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, California.
If you’re an originalist the LPCM mono mix will suite you just fine despite its limited dynamics and somewhat muffled, boxy sound. The new 5.1 mix offered up in DTS-HD Master Audio, is bigger and atmospheric, but maintains authenticity by using the original library of sound effects.
The Criterion Collection include a superb collection of bonus features for this release including superb interviews with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt and the infamous Orson Welles radio play.
- Movie Archaeologists (1080p; 00:29:27) – Visual-effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt are historians of specialized filmmaking techniques. In this short documentary, produced by the Criterion Collection in 2020, they discuss the production of The War of the Worlds, including the film’s innovative use of visual and sound effects along with rare footage from the Paramount Pictures archives.
- From the Archive: 2018 Restoration (1080p; 00:20:28) – In this program, produced by the Criterion Collection in 2020, senior vice president of asset management for Paramount Pictures Andrea Kalas, along with visual-effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt, who served as consultants on the 2018 restoration of The War of the Worlds, discuss their work on the film.
- The Sky is Falling (1080i; 00:29:58) – This documentary was made for Paramount Pictures in 2005 and features actors Gene Barry, Robert Cornthwaite, and Ann Robinson; assistant director Michael D. Moore; Jack Senter, who worked in The War of the Worlds’ art department; Diana Gemora, daughter of makeup artist Charles Gemora; film historian Bob Burns; filmmaker Ray Harryhausen; author Justin Humphreys; and visual-effects supervisor Robert Skotak.
- Wells and Welles – H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel has inspired many versions, including The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s radio one adapted by Howard Koch and directed and narrated by Orson Welles. The program was broadcast live on October 30, 1938, and became famous for reportedly causing panic among its listening audience. Wells and Welles met for the first and only time shortly before the second anniversary of the Mercury Theatre broadcast, when both men happened to be lecturing in San Antonio, Texas. On October 28, 1940, they visited KTSA radio for an interview with broadcaster Charles C. Shaw. Both the Mercury Theatre program and KTSA interview are included here.
- George Pal (00:49:09) – These excerpts are from an audio recording of George Pal’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminar at the American Film Institute on February 5, 1970. In them, he discusses his career and the use of special effects in his films and fields questions from the audience.
- An essay by film critic J. Hoberman
The Final Assessment
For cinephiles and sci-fi fans alike, this Criterion release is a must-have. It’s one of the best-looking releases of a catalogue title I have seen. Period.
The War of the Worlds is out on Blu-ray & DVD July 7, 2020 from Criterion Collection
- The Creative Content: 4.0/5
- The Video: 5/5
- The Audio: 4.5/5
- The Supplements: 4.0/5
- Rating Certificate: G
- Studios & Distributors: Paramount Pictures | Criterion Collection
- Director: Byron Haskin
- Writers: H.G. Wells (novel) | Barré Lyndon (screenplay)
- Run Time: 85 Mins.
- Street Date: 7 July 2020
- Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
- Video Format: AVC 1080p
- Primary Audio: English LPCM 1.0
- Secondary Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
- Subtitles: English SDH