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The War of the Worlds (1953)

Rewatching George Pal's The War of the Worlds for the first time in decades reinforced how much movies like Independence Day owed this example of classic 50s cinematic science fiction. The A-bomb sequence was perhaps the most blatant beat-by-beat repetition but there are many other parallels that would argue that Independence Day is perhaps a more faithful remake than the recent Spielberg War of the Worlds (without the "The").

The seminal nature of the film was made even clearer by the sound effects of the alien war machines: straight out of a hundred video games released since.

One of the interesting things about this The War of the Worlds is the implicit faith the film places in science. Ann Robinson blatantly checks out Gene Barry's scientist with the big scientist glasses, a science fangirl with a masters degree herself. Science provides explanations for the aliens and makes at least some progress in understanding their behaviour and weaknesses, unlike the military which is of no use at all. Perhaps tellingly, the scientist becomes less effective when he ditches the glasses and tweed coat puts on a leather jacket instead; and the mob's hysterical, mindless rejection of science provides the emotional gut-punch of the movie. However science is itself a red herring of sorts - ultimately no more effective than military might, as demonstrated when technology and weaponry are melded into the atomic bomb.

Faith in science is misplaced, but faith in faith is not. While I've read that H. G. Wells may have baulked at the blatantly religious spin the movie gave to the Martians' defeat, I didn't mind it, and liked how the theme of religion was woven throughout the story, sometimes explicitly (Sylvia's pastor uncle, the final scenes in the churches), sometimes more subtly (a reference to "six days").

Any movie over 50 years old will contain anachronistic elements. The voice over, especially the extended opening explaining why every other planet in the solar system (except Venus ... what happened to Venus?) is unsuitable for the Martians, is fey by today's standards. And the role of women somewhat cringeworthy. Ann Baxter, master's degree notwithstanding, quickly reverts to serving tea and scones and screaming in terror as she runs into Barry's masculine arms. Though we did see at least one female scientist, she was, perhaps not surprisingly, an older, unsexy woman.

Some of the special effects are quite poor: strings obviously holding up the Martian ships (made clearer by a beautifully restored print on the DVD), a heavy reliance on stock footage, the plane crash sending Robinson and Barry to the house with the encounter with the Martian implied rather than shown. The tri-coloured Martian eyes (red/green/blue ... the components of television colour ... cinema's natural enemy in the 50s?) look silly.

But other sequences hold up very well, the devastation and destruction of Los Angeles for instance. And there are other aspects that are praiseworthy: the international outlook of the film, the escalation of dread and scale, and skilful interweaving of the various plot threads - personal, scientific and military. And the design of the Martian ships, sleek and dangerous, is still a classic.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 13, 2006 9:21 AM.

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