Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 7, 2022)
Across a long and illustrious career, Claude Rains appeared in a slew classics. With films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia under his belt, he will always be regarded as a legend.
But a man’s gotta eat, so Rains occasionally found himself in movies remembered ever so slightly less well than those cited above. In this category falls 1961’s Battle of the Worlds, a low-budget Italian sci-fi flick.
As an asteroid approaches the Earth, it appears to threaten the existence of humanity. However, it turns out that something unusual comes along for the ride.
Rather than just another space rock on a collision course, the asteroid takes up orbit around the Earth. It turns out to be inhabited, and these aliens eventually make their less than benign motives apparent.
Given that I suspect Battle cost about $27, I doubt Rains pulled in a major paycheck for the film. One also assumes Rains really needed the money, as I can find no creative reasons he’d get involved in a terrible flick like this one otherwise.
One can’t view the sci-fi of the late 1950s or early 1960s by today’s standards, but even if I “grade on a curve”, Battle becomes a dud. This wasn’t inevitable, as the basic plot shows promise.
No, the concept of “humans vs. aliens” isn’t fresh – and it wasn’t new 60 years ago, either – but it still offers basic potential for drama. We’re talking the possible end of all human life, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to churn some tension and excitement from this scenario.
Instead, Battle becomes a total snoozer, partly due to the aforementioned low budget. With funds so scarce, the filmmakers clearly lacked the ability to do much with visual effects.
This leads to space shots that seem crude even by 1961 standards – and not very many of them to boot. We get the occasional view of various ships and whatnot, but the vast majority of Battle sticks with simple sets.
Again, this doesn’t become a fatal flaw in and of itself. Plenty of movies with low budgets manage to make the most of what they have.
Unfortunately, Battle doesn’t join that club, largely due to the painfully flat screenplay. The story evolves in a jerky, erratic manner that feels like it goes out of its way to crush any possible drama.
Battle spends a lot of time with prologue, and little of this seems impactful. We get some stabs at character development – such as the generic romantic scenes – and these all feel jumbled and incoherent.
Once the “action” finally occurs, it feels both too little/too late and also too cheesy. As noted, I understand that a film with low funds comes with limitations, but the complete absence of tension or thrills nonetheless seems surprising.
The actors don’t help, as the vast majority sleepwalk through their underwritten parts. Rains offers an exception, as he chews scenery with abandon.
To my surprise, I get the impression Rains actually gave his all here. I assumed he’d just punch the clock and collect his pay, but he really seems to attempt to add some life to this moribund production.
Granted, this results in a hammy performance, but at least it comes across that Rains tried to contribute a bit of punch to the tale.
He fails, as even the most talented actor can’t redeem a movie as dull and draggy as Battle of the Worlds. Not silly enough to work for camp value and not interesting to succeed as a straight sci-fi flick, this winds up as a justifibly forgotten dud.