Tuesday, July 27, 2010

War of the Worlds (1953)

Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson
Directed by Byron Haskin
Rated G
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells


The film opens with newsreel style opening with footage from both World Wars to build up apprehension for the movie’s eponymous war. From there we get a voice-over that gives us a brief lesson about the planets in our solar system and their harsh environments with a series of paintings to endow the imagination. Its actually kind of cool think how this must have been to a pre-NASA audience, and the narration itself is quite harrowing and really builds up the foreboding mood.

The story begins with a meteorite crashing down in Southern California, making only a mild impact with it hits the ground. People start to flock to it in droves, there’s a mom taking pictures of her kids standing on the edge of the crater, and some idiot with a shovel pounding on the side of the thing trying to break pieces off. Seriously, why isn’t there a police line or some kind of barricade up? Something to keep back people back until it’s safety can be determined.

This warrants the arrival of physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry, not Trace Beaulieu, that’s a different Dr. Clayton Forrester) and soon meets Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) who claims to be familiar with Dr. Forrester’s work, but doesn’t recognize him while he is wearing his Clark Kent glasses. In order to establish her a love interest, he makes a witty comeback about how he only wears the glasses when he wants to look at something close up. Oh you sly dog you…

Forrester manages to get the gang of gawkers away from the meteorite by telling everyone that it is radioactive. The local sheriff charges three men to guard it to make sure no one messes with the meteorite, but since these guys don’t look like they could make it as deputies in Mayberry, it’s no surprise that they’re instantly killed by the emerging Martians.

A military command post is set up and there’s a bit of speculation about the Martians, before the local minister slips past all the soldiers charged with securing the field, who watch the Martians listlessly, while he tries and communicate with the aliens while reciting Psalm 23, you know, the “Walk through the valley of the shadow of death” passage. Given the frequency with which I’ve heard this passage in movies, I’m beginning to suspect it’s the only part of the Bible that Hollywood knows.

Needless to say, for all his efforts, the minister is vaporized and the Martians launch an attack on the military post, obliterating both troops and tanks while the army’s weapons prove useless against the Martian’s ships. Clayton and Sylvia manage to escape in a plane, which they crash land off-screen. After some oddly placed stock footage of animal stampedes, we cut back to the two taking refuge in an abandoned house were Slyvia cooks up some fried eggs. It doesn’t really do much for the suspense if they have time to stop and eat. No, actually they don’t eat, they just sit at the table and talk to each other in rather humdrum tones until another meteorite crashes just outside the house. The two do manage to escape, Sylvia having enough hysterical fits for the both of them.

They manage to regroup with a number of other scientists, and learn that the army is going to drop an atomic bomb on the Martians in order to stop them. There is quite a crowd gathered to witness the ordeal. The watchers are told to avert their eyes from the blast, but they don’t, they just hold up their hands like they were trying to block the midday sun rather than the blast of a nuclear weapon. Ugh, these people deserve to be wiped out, maybe it’s just as well that the bomb didn’t work.

Now that we’re in the last ten minutes of the movie do things really start to seem severe as we see major cities be evacuated, riots have broken out and crazed citizens are raiding any passing vehicles. Dr. Forrester is forced out of his truck by the mob and is left battered and bloody. He runs down the abandoned streets furiously looking for Slyvia.

Its quite the eerie sight seeing an empty metropolis, even more so when the Martian ship glide in to cause destruction by toppling over skyscrapers. Against all odds, Clayton finds Sylvia in a church, but just as the Martians are about to destroy the building, they crash, as we learn that airborne bacteria has killed the Martians. Clayton spots an alien arm hanging out of a damaged spaceship, and I kid you not, actually takes it’s pulse before declaring, “It’s dead… It’s over.” I’m sorry, but unless you are Dr. McCoy from “Star Trek”, you cannot identify the pulse of a completely alien life form and determine whether or not it is dead. I’m sorry, no.


The effects of this film are what have helped to make the film famous. Producer George Pal really pushed the envelope with visuals, as he would do again with “The Time Machine”, but much like that film, the effects have been dated with the passage of time, and may not impress audiences the way they did during its original release. You can see the wires on the Martian ships if you actually look for them, but I won’t bother. When reviewing movies I try my best to judge the films on the merits of their story as well as the techniques that were used to tell it. Looking at it in those terms, the title “War of the Worlds” doesn’t fit so much as “A Small Skirmish in Southern California”. It isn’t until the end that we really get any sense of scale to the conflict or see the devastation heaped onto the populace. Our two protagonists remain in relative comfort through the film and don’t appear to have that much in the way of personalities to help us latch onto them in the course of the alien onslaught.

Final Score:

3 out of 5. Adequate.

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