Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 25 min.
Release Date: August 26th, 1953 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Byron Haskin Actors: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Lewis Martin, Vernon Rich, Jack Kruschen
he two World Wars demonstrated that mankind had reached an unparalleled peak in its capacity for destruction – nation against nation, involving every continent across the world. And thanks to advancing super-science, it would appear as if that’s just the start of the looming barbarity. But, according to a narrator, introducing the film as if it were a documentary, Earth is being scrutinized by subjugating Martians, who have determined that this particular planet is the perfect spot for an invasion.
A George Pal production, based on H.G. Wells’ seminal sci-fi novel, there’s little need for an extensive setup; a whopper of a meteor crashes into the Californian wilderness, “as big as a house and red hot.” A nearby group of Pacific Tech scientists head over to begin an investigation into the fiery mass, but the locals dub the rock a goldmine, hoping that it’ll attract tourists from across the globe, propping up the area’s commerce. Before anyone can get terribly close to it, worries over radioactivity thwart a hands-on approach, which allows for leading astro-nuclear physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) to initiate a bit of a romance with onlooker and science teacher Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), who heads into town with her uncle, pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin), for a square dance.
Just as Clayton ponders the lack of a destructive path taken by such a monstrous space rock, hypothesizing that perhaps it’s hollow, a trio of posted sentries witnesses the nocturnal emergence of alien life – represented by the now-famous, screeching, pulsing red glow of a Martian periscope, surveying its surroundings like the incandescent filament of an anglerfish. Expectedly, the extraterrestrials aren’t here for a vacation; their goal is total domination. And their annihilative capabilities far surpass that of the United States military.
Though the characters at the center of this tale don’t possess very notable personalities (A-list actors elude this project), nor do the supporting roles tend to take their situation as seriously – and with proper panic – as they might in a more modern picture, the rapidity with which tanks, jeeps, and other mighty machines are called in to wage war against the unknown spacecraft is surely an accurate depiction of this farfetched premise. Of course, Marine overkill soon proves to be wholly insufficient; the Martian attackers seem to have a striking knowledge of human defenses, while Major General Mann (Les Tremayne) and his men struggle to predict their opponent’s abilities. “They’ll probably move at dawn.”
Through the use of a man of faith, a curious scientist, a frightened commoner, and trained soldiers intent on action, varying perspectives on how to approach alien beings are systematically covered – a collection of viewpoints used extensively in subsequent sci-fi and horror pictures. Their disparate reactions are moderately amusing, though strangely unsympathetic. It’s entirely possible that audiences will be routing for the Martians.
Once the onslaught begins, some decent ruination and stunts arise (including flailing Army men doused in flames), despite less convincing miniatures, outdated special effects, and obvious stock footage. Yet the focus fascinatingly shifts from the grander scale of an international invasion to the intimate endurance tactics of two lone survivors, who retreat to a farm where one of the most immortal of all sci-fi sequences takes place. Though not the first film to delay exposing an alien antagonist until a late, climactic moment, “The War of the Worlds” certainly exhibits a keen eye for that type of suspense, saving the big reveal for a spectacular (and somewhat funny) visual thrill.
But a return to the documentary design for a montage of the evil vanquishers pulls audiences back from the excitement, detrimentally separating the adventure into unfitting parts. However, the use of an atom bomb as a last resort ties into the contemporary nuclear warfare woes – perhaps America’s version of Godzilla’s wrath and the consequences of such awesome forces – though the outcome is destined for cleverer concepts. In the end, the filmmakers’ optimism and favoring of luck (even with glimpses of rioters and looters and humanity crumbling under existential pressures) lends to an unforgettable resolution.
– Mike Massie