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The War of the Worlds (1953)

Every so often, my Mom would force my brothers and me to sit down in front of the TV and watch one of her favorite movies…and usually, I'd end up enjoying it. (Seeing Wait Until Dark at the age of eleven was certainly a memorable experience.) That was how I first saw George Pal's adaptation of The War of the Worlds at the age of seven, on a Saturday afternoon, on a black-and-white TV. And it's a good thing Mom was watching the movie with me, because the scene when three flag-waving men are blasted by the Martian heat-ray was nearly too much for this young boy to take. But it scared me in a good way, and The War of the Worlds has been one of my all-time favorite movies ever since. It took years for me to see it on my own, however; I had to have Mom with me when that that particular scene aired for a long time afterwards.

However, it wasn't until only recently – about thirty years later – that I realized I'd been watching a lousy, faded, scratched, beat-up print of this great movie for all of this time. All of the TV broadcasts, and even the VHS videotape, laserdisc, and DVD I'd bought of the movie were all of a terrible quality print, one that I'd become used to for all my life. So when a pristine, restored, digitally remastered DVD of "The War of the Worlds" was released in November of 2005 (and for only $10 at Wal-mart!), I simply had to snatch it up and see for myself what the restoration was like.

For the second time in my life, the movie blew me away. I was amazed at the quality of the restored print used on this DVD. The stock footage sequences from World War I and World War II, both at the beginning and during the "worldwide invasion" montage that takes place halfway through the movie, are far more clear and less scratched; They stand out far less as "stock footage" than they did in the earlier editions of the video. And the Martian war machines themselves are magnificent: the crystal-clear print makes them look even more impressive and menacingly beautiful.

More importantly, the new print makes it much harder for a casual viewer to "see the wires" holding up the Martian machines. Of the many 1950s films that set new high-water marks in special effects, the Oscar-winning effects used in this movie more than any other have been pointed at and derided by modern-day viewers who seem to think that the special effects of the past "suck" when compared to the multi-million dollar CGI gee-wiz technology of today. I certainly didn't have any problem with the effects of this film when I was seven years old…and the effects still look terrific even today. On the new DVD they are fantastic: the heat rays and exploding shells and the "atom bomb" explosion all look far more impressive and (almost) realistic.

Steven Spielberg may have had a vastly greater budget to work with when he gave us his Martian tripods in the 2005 remake, but those war machines still pale to the elegance and the menace of the Martians of the 1953 film. What's more, one subtle difference between the 1953 Martians and the 2005 Martians was the way they deployed their weapons of mass destruction. The invaders in the 2005 film that fired their disintegration beams with pinpoint accuracy; however, in the earlier film the Martians sprayed the entire world with their heat rays and "skeleton beams" (the green disintegration energy blobs). They didn't aim for particular targets; they just blasted everything within range (the plane that dropped the flare, for instance). It gave the impression that anyone within the vicinity of the Martians was in danger, and this helped to heighten the sense of fear and panic that the movie generates. The Martians are everywhere, destroying everything, and no one is safe, no matter where you can run. (Pal made excellent use of stock footage to give the impression of an alien menace that threatened all life on the planet Earth – even woodland creatures and birds flee from these Martians.) Unlike most alien-invasion films where the enemy is "there" and we are "here" (Independence Day, for instance), the sense of approaching, unstoppable doom is omnipresent in Pal's film.

Still, there are a few 1950s conventions that can't help but give the movie some creaky moments, especially the damsel in distress who is there mostly to scream and panic. (She did a thesis on modern scientists in order to get her master's degree, but what does she do in the movie? She serves coffee to the soldiers and drives a school bus.) And one of the persons who took part in the audio commentary on this DVD, Bill Warren, pointed out in his book Keep Watching the Skies! that the movie doesn't make any mention at all of the Soviet Union or any Communist countries. More importantly, there is one gaping plot hole that sets up the final catastrophe: after being told by the military that their scientific research may be the key to saving the world from the Martians, the scientists pack up their gear and drive away in school buses without any military escort.

One ironic point about the film is the way it is considered to be one of the most "literate" science fiction films of the 1950s, as nearly every bit of dialogue is a scientific explanation of the events taking place. ("The power lines are down! That explains why the lights went out!") Yet, George Pal introduces a blatant religious element into the film, one that suggests that when science fails, there is no one left but God to save Mankind from the forces of evil. This theme would no doubt have angered Wells, who was an outspoken atheist and who used the character of "the Curate" in his original novel to take potshots at what he saw was the ultimate lack of faith on the part of Man. Pal's suggestion of Church and God existing as a bastion of faith for Mankind is a polar opposite to this; this is his movie, not Wells'.

While Wells' original novel will be remembered forever as one of the foundations of modern-day science fiction, Pal's movie has become a classic just as important to science fiction as the novel. What's more, in this day and age it seems unlikely that many younger science fiction fans have actually read the novel; while they know the story of The War of the Worlds, Pal's movie will undoubtedly be the "definitive" version of the story for generations to come – just has it has been since its premiere over fifty years ago. Spielberg's movie became a huge box-office hit, yet it's already been largely forgotten; it hasn't had the long-lasting impact of his more famous science fiction films such as E.T. or Jurassic Park. It was a fun special-effects laden summer movie…but that's all it was. George Pal's 1953 classic remains the standard to which all adaptations of The War of the Worlds will be measured (and there have been several of them in the past few years), and it will likely retain its legend as a true science fiction classic for generations to come.

Best of all, this Halloween I'm looking forward to sitting down with my Mom and watching the movie with her…and enjoying her reaction as this new pristine DVD of the movie blows her away.