Editor’s Note: Welcome to Film Obsessive’s newest feature series, “Off the Shelf.” Each Saturday our writers share the joys of physical media, from reviews of new 4K and blu-ray releases to reflections on the treasured media they’ve come to collect and cherish over the years.
The War of the Worlds, directed by Byron Haskin and released in 1953, is widely considered today to be one of the finest examples of science fiction films ever made. It won an Oscar for best visual effects, and in 2011 it was selected for inclusion to the United States National Film Registry in the Library of Congress.
On July 7th, 2020 the film was released by The Criterion Collection in a special Blu-ray disc loaded with special features!
First off, The War of the Worlds is an utterly fantastic adaptation of H.G Well’s novel. While it changes the setting from Victorian England to modern-day California and other various things, it retains the spirit of the novel. The Criterion edition boasts a 4K digital restoration (Manually cleaned of imperfections), as well as an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
The film was shot in Technicolor and the Blu-ray brings out all the wonderful saturated colors and personalities of 1950s America. War of the Worlds is just awash in color, from the creepy green glow of the Martians to the fiery explosions, everything is stamped by cinematographer George Barnes’s style.
The film uses its set pieces to build and flesh out its world in a visual way, and with a runtime of a brisk 85 minutes, not a scene is wasted, not a frame is not devoted to moving the narrative on and the picture is stronger for it. The film was very much a product of the atomic age, released at a time when the hopeful optimism at the start of the 50s was slowly being swallowed by the fear of nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union. However, it tried to showcase the fear and paranoia while also giving hope for the future.
The film’s special effects were Oscar-worthy for their time and hold up much better than most other films from the era. The design of the iconic alien ships is perhaps the thing most remembered from the picture, at once a very 50s design and also otherworldly, evoking a sense of both nostalgia and terror.
This edition of the film is loaded with special features, one of them having special significance to me. It was The Mercury Theatre’s on-air broadcast of War of the Worlds produced by Orson Welles. The radio play for its first half was produced to be like a real radio broadcast, complete with news and music! The play is famous for causing panic with many listeners thinking the invasion was in fact real! I remember asking my Grandma who was born in the 1920s about it when I was a kid, and she told me about how scary it was because the radio made it sound so real and lifelike. This radio play is included on the Blu-ray and it sounds wonderful! Clocking in at just under an hour, it’s the perfect companion to the film.
The Criterion Collection edition includes two features made especially for this edition, From the Archive: Restoration and Movie Archaeologists, both of these documentaries explain in detail the extensive restoration process that was undertaken to restore War of the Worlds to its original glory! They are fascinating and well worth the time if you are interested in the process of film restoration.
Also included is The Sky Is Falling, specially created in 2005 for Paramount, and it includes interviews with most of the actors and helps to flesh out the history of the film and its production. This feature further brings the picture to life seeing those who made it speak about its details.
The Criterion Collection edition of The War of the Worlds is a very worthy purchase, albeit expensive, coming in at $39.99 (unless on sale). However, if one is a film buff and enjoys the details of filmmaking and how old-world movies were made, then this Blu-ray is invaluable. Getting a copy of this film was very nostalgic for me, as I rented this movie many many times from Hollywood Video as a kid growing up. Seeing the film restored in glorious Blu-ray with no flaws was moving and took me right back to my childhood, and listening to Orson Welles’ radio play brought back fond memories of my Grandma and my time spent with her.
I recommend The War of the Worlds, it’s well worth your money, at the very least to support the Criterion Collection’s preservation of motion pictures.
Check out the trailer here!