in Criterion Month, Review

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Why is this in the Criterion Collection? That’s the reason I picked this movie. I vaguely remember renting it from a video store (that’s now a bank) as a kid but wasn’t particularly engaged. Is it the first alien invasion movie? The Man from Planet X is earlier. Is it how the film uses an alien invasion to comment on the Cold War? The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers do that better. It’s not even a good adaptation of HG Wells’ novel. What is this movie?

All I can come up with is that this film has cool special effects. Is that all it takes to get into the Criterion Collection? Are you telling me Independence Day has a shot? I would understand the decision if The War of the Worlds had been an early edition to the Criterion Collection. Titles like Armageddon and The Rock helped Criterion in those shaky early couple of years but this is recent. This film came out on Criterion two days ago!

War of the Worlds isn’t a bad movie. It’s just an odd choice. I feel tricked. The fact that it was added to the Criterion Collection made me doubt myself. “Huh, I guess it must be great?” Was this just an easy get for Criterion? Does somebody’s uncle work at Paramount? Again, it’s fine but I can’t find a thread to latch on to here. You don’t need to see this movie. I didn’t need to see it again but here I am and now I have to talk about it.

The film opens with black and white newsreel footage of war with a Narrator (Paul Frees aka Boris from Rocky & Bullwinkle) recapping us on all the recent wars, but then he’s like “Oh shit none of these compare to what’s coming next… THE WAR OF THE WORLDS!” I’m paraphrasing a little. We get opening credits to stock ‘50s sci-fi music and then it’s back to more narration.

The Narrator talks about an advanced species living on Mars who have grown weary of their cold and dying planet. They don’t say why Mars is dying but I’ll go with it. He then SLOWLY goes over each planet the Martians considered for their new home and why they decided against it. Stuff like “Pluto, so cold, that even its atmosphere lies frozen on its surface. They couldn’t go to Neptune or Uranus. Twin worlds in eternal night and perpetual cold.”

The Narrator does this spiel for a total of SIX planets and this movie is only 85 minutes long. Also, the conclusion is always “It was too cold though.” They don’t even consider that some of these planets are made of gas. I will give the movie some space points (that’s what I give movies when they have cool space stuff) for the matte paintings of these planets. The film has a beautiful color palette.

The Martians decide on Earth (cause it’s not cold) and we see a meteor fall from space. The locals of Linda Rosa, California huddle in the street and watch the meteor. What’s odd is how unfazed they are by a fireball hurtling towards their town. The locals react with more of a “Gee whiz what the heck is that?” kind of attitude. One guy actually says “Maybe it came from Mars?” People that say stuff like that aren’t supposed to be correct.

The meteor hits but fortunately, atomic scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (played by B-list Gregory Peck aka Gene Barry) is fishing near the site of impact and goes to investigate. Seems a little convenient that an atomic scientist just happened to by right next to a spot that got hit by a radioactive meteor. Again, I’ll go with it.

Forrester tells everyone to not fuck with the meteor because it’s radioactive. He plans to do more tests but first goes to a square dance with a USC librarian he meets named Sylvia (Ann Robinson). As Clayton promenades, some local dumbasses decided to mess with the meteor.

The following sequence is bizarre. The dumbasses approach the meteor and a periscope-like apparatus appears… and then we go back to Clayton telling a joke at the square dance. It’s not important character-building stuff or in any way relevant. Continually we cut between our first encounter with the Martians and a square dance. Is this what people liked in the fifties? Apparently, because this film received a nomination for Best Editing at the Oscars. Insanity.

Of course, it’s not a meteor at all… It’s a SPACESHIP! I love the spaceship designs in the film, sleek manta ray-shaped crafts with glowing green lights. They also have force fields when tanks try to blast ‘em. I wanted to give a shout out to the effects team behind this film but not a single name is mentioned on Wikipedia. It’s a shame, I had so many more space points to hand out.

Other meteors around the world reveal themselves as spaceships and we got an all-out invasion in no time. This is always the part of alien invasion movies that makes no sense to me. “We want your planet! But first, we want to blow up most of it!” And they do. What’s strange is how pointless everything seems.

Clayton can’t do anything to stop the aliens. Nor does he have any useful ideas on how to stop them. Sylvia doesn’t do much more than scream and make coffee for the men. I swear there are two scenes where she makes coffee for everyone. God, the fifties sucked. So what does everybody do for the rest of the movie?

They run. They run from one burning barn to another burning barn. The United States drops a god damn atomic bomb on the Martians and it does diddly squat. It’s hard to get invested when the characters don’t matter. Nothing matters. EXCEPT for one oversight.

The Martians weren’t prepared for all those dang Earth germs. We see a ship land and a green limb reaches out only to collapse on the ground. As the Narrator says “The end came swiftly. All over the world, their machines began to stop and fall. After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. God? And right after this, we cut to people singing and shots of a church. I don’t think Wells’ novel that was an allegory of the indictment of the British Empire’s foreign policy, would be too stoked about this USA Bible blast of an ending.

Why is this movie in the Criterion Collection? I don’t know. Is there a deeper meaning behind this film? I really don’t think so. It’s a popcorn movie. It’s got spaceships and explosions. That’s literally all it has. That being said they are very good spaceships and explosions, and at the end of the day isn’t that all any of us want out of our Criterion movies?

Hey, this guy’s kinda cute!