The War of the Worlds
A mysterious, meteorlike object has landed in a small California town. All clocks have stopped. A fleet of glowing green UFOs hovers menacingly over the entire globe. The Martian invasion of Earth has begun, and it seems that nothing—neither military might nor the scientific know-how of nuclear physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry)—can stop it. In the expert hands of genre specialists George Pal and Byron Haskin, H. G. Wells’s end-of-civilization classic receives a chilling Cold War–era update, complete with hallucinatory Technicolor and visionary, Oscar-winning special effects. Emblazoned with iconographic images of 1950s science fiction, The War of the Worlds is both an influential triumph of visual imagination and a still-disquieting document of the wonder and terror of the atomic age.
Byron Haskin’s classic science fiction film The War of the Worlds finally comes to Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc, the 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from an all new 4K restoration conducted by Paramount, scanned from the original three-strip Technicolor negatives.
The final results are stunning, making this one of the more impressive Technicolor restorations I’ve seen. Based on the details provided in an included supplement about the restoration, it sounds like each strip was scanned individually and then put together digitally. This has drastically improved the picture over previous editions of the film, where I’m assuming a composite was used for the source, which leads to a far sharper image here, with all of those instances of colour separation and pulsing seen on the old DVDs now gone. This is the cleanest and sharpest I’ve ever seen the film up to this point, which delivers wonderful textures and fine-object detail most of its running time, with only some stock footage and effects shots looking a little blurrier. Film grain is gorgeously rendered, with no instances of noise ever sticking out.
Interestingly, according to that feature on the restoration, the improved clarity made certain aspects of the effects easier to see, like the fishing line holding up the model ships or the dividing lines where optical effects were used, which were all previously hidden by the chemical process used to combine the three-strips. It sounds as though some digital corrections were done to make these stand out less, since it was reasonable to assume that the effects people were counting on the Technicolor process to soften the image a bit and hide these things. Don’t fret, though, as you can still see some of those aspects (like the strings) to about the same degree you could before, and before-and-after examples in that feature show they were as clear as day after the initial scan was done. Because of that I’m actually okay with the finished product, especially since the tinkering doesn’t seem to have impacted the image in any other way.
Clean-up has also been exceptional, where even the stock footage used in the film comes out looking just about spotless. But the most impressive aspect of the restoration and presentation are the colours! There is a colder look to the film, but there are some intense reds and greens and violets thrown about, and they look bright and bold and wonderful. Black levels are also pretty good, deep and bold without crushing out shadow detail.
In all it’s a gorgeous presentation, far exceeding anything I would have ever expected for the film, which has always looked a little rough. The all-new scan and restoration has paid off incredibly.
Criterion includes two audio tracks: the film’s original monaural track presented in lossless PCM, and then a new 5.1 remix created by sound designer Ben Burtt, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix is interesting as, according to the restoration feature on the disc, it was almost created entirely anew (Burtt had access to a number of the individual sound effects from the film) and it was based on Paramount’s original desire to present the film with an enhanced stereo presentation, which was dropped during production.
The 5.1 remix turns out, much to my surprise, to be quite solid. Dialogue and most effects are still mixed to work mostly between the fronts, with clean stereo effects that move naturally between the speakers when called to do so. Some of the more action-oriented scenes, along with the music, spread out more, and some of the explosions pack some decent bass, though some moments could have used more of a punch. The mix is active but not overly so, and comparing it to the monaural mix, despite there being some obvious additions to the 5.1 mix (like extra explosions and ray blasts for example), you can hear that Burtt was really trying to keep levels about the same, his aim seeming to just spread the action out more. There is at least one moment where there is a very jarring drop in the music and effects so that dialogue can be heard. The mono track does the same thing, though because of the nature of that track it doesn’t stick out as much, yet because the 5.1 track has more going on and spreads the audio out around the room, this drop is far more noticeable.
The mono track is no slouch itself, delivering clean dialogue, music, and effects, with no distortion or damage, which also holds true to the 5.1 presentation. In the end, both are clean and both present wonderful fidelity and range, though the 5.1 track does clearly beat out the mono one in that regard. In all, they both sound excellent and it will just come down to personal preference. But I still think the 5.1 remix is pretty impressive.
Criterion’s special edition packs on some great material, but they inexplicably leave out material from the previous Paramount DVD, which also appears on another Blu-ray edition released in Australia. Paramount’s 2005 Special Edition DVD featured two audio commentaries but only one of those commentary tracks has been moved over here, the one featuring filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren.
I haven’t heard the other track, which featured Ann Robinson and Gene Berry, so maybe there is a reason Criterion didn’t feel the need to include it (to be fair, maybe Paramount wouldn’t let them have it) but the track they do include is a good one. For me it had a sort of Bruce Eder track vibe (which works for me as I like his tracks), with the three going over the film’s production, talking about the modernized adaptation of the book (which leads to discussion on Wells’ book with comparisons to the film, naturally), the effects, and how the film had an impact not only on audiences, but also on science-fiction films overall. The three also talk about other adaptations, which includes Orson Welles’ infamous radio adaptation and Steven Spielberg’s then-upcoming one starring Tom Cruise, which they haven’t seen yet (the track was recorded in 2005). It gets kind of fanboyish, but this aspect is kept in check, but the three are obviously overjoyed to be talking about this film.
Criterion next includes a couple of new features, both featuring sound designer Ben Burtt and special effects supervisor Craig Barron: one about the film’s production and its effects called Movie Archaeologists, and the other around the 2018 restoration, which also features Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas. They run 29-minutes and 20-minutes respectively.
The feature on the restoration is an especially fascinating one because it not only gets into the general details of how the restoration was done, but also gets into some of the short-comings that come with the improved resolution 4K provides, like making how the effects were done easier to see, with Barron explaining how this was “corrected.” Burtt’s discussion on the new sound mix is also fascinating, him explaining the research and care he put into it.
The other feature starts off by explaining the film’s lengthy production history, with the rights being bought by Cecil B. DeMille in the 20’s or so, before Burtt and Barron get into the film’s sound and visual effects, as well as its use of colour. Burtt explains on how certain sound effects were pulled off while Barron does the same for the visuals. At one point, Barron even works to recreate some of the film’s effects to show exactly how they were done, and I assume this was added because archival materials around the film’s production appear to be very limited. That little touch elevates the feature a considerable amount.
Also included here is The Sky is Falling, Paramount’s 2005 documentary on the making of the film, featuring actors Gene Barry, Ann Robinson and Robert Cornthwaite, assistant director Michael D. Moore, art director Jack Senter, Diana Gemora (daughter to make-up artists, Charles Gemora), effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, film historian Bob Burns, author Justin Humphreys, and effects supervisor Robert Skotak. Archival footage of designer Al Nozaki, talking about the war machine designs, also appears. Running 29-minutes it’s a fairly standard making-of, covering aspects of the production from casting to release, but it has some wonderful, exclusive material to it, including Harryhausen’s test footage for the aliens he created for a version of the film that didn’t come to be (and they more closely resemble how they looked in the book) and some footage from producer George Pal’s early stop-motion animation. But the best story comes from Gemora who, at the age of 12, had to help her father quickly put together an alien for the film just the night before the shoot, and recalls the absolute terror they both experienced waiting for the alien to pretty much fall apart at any given second.
Next is a section around Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast, which presents it here in its entirety at 57-minutes. It’s presentation as a news broadcast is what led to some of the fallout that followed. Also found here is a 23-minute radio broadcast of an interview featuring Welles and author H. G. Wells, who both just happened to be in town at the same time, Welles to promote Citizen Kane by the sounds of it. The two then talk about Welles’ radio adaptation, the book, the themes found in it and how they relate to the War currently going on, with discussion about what would happen if the U.S. gets pulled into it. Really great find on Criterion’s part.
There is then another audio recording, this one featuring producer George Pal, from 1970. He talks a little about his stop motion animation from his early days before getting into his science-fiction work, which focuses a lot on The War of the Worlds, which he rushed to make after he found out Paramount had the rights to the film. It turns out, funnily enough, that Paramount had only bought the rights to a “silent” version of the film, not the “talkie” version, so that had to be sorted out. He also gets into why they made the various decisions they did, like the designs of the war machines. Another nice little find, running 49-minutes. The film’s trailer then closes of the disc.
J. Hoberman provides an essay about the film, the novel, and other adaptations (with some writing on Spielberg’s own adaptation), which is found in the included insert. Outside of the Robinson/Barry commentary, Criterion also didn’t carry over a featurette around H. G. Wells found on the Paramount DVD.
Overall, despite the lack of that material, Criterion’s special edition covers the film rather well, looking at it from an academic point while also getting into the film’s production, which includes its creative special effects.
The supplements are good (even if everything from the Paramount DVD hasn’t been carried over), but this is solely worth picking up just for the presentation alone. It looks exceptional and has never looked anywhere near like what it does here.