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CRITERION

MOVIE INFO

Director:
Byron Haskin
Cast:
Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
Writing Credits:
Barré Lyndon

Synopsis:
Martians attack a small California community - and then the world!

MPAA:
Rated NR.

DISC DETAILS
Presentation:
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio:
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English PCM Monaural
Subtitles:
English
Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:
None

Runtime: 85 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 7/7/2020

Bonus:Barry
• Audio Commentary with Filmmaker Joe Dante, Film Historian Bob Burns, and Author Bill Warren
• “The Sky Is Falling” Documentary
• “Movie Archaeologists” Documentary
• “From the Archive” Featurette
War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
• 1940 Radio Interview with HG Wells and Orson Welles
• 1970 Audio Recording of Producer George Pal
• Trailer
• Booklet


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RELATED REVIEWS


The War Of The Worlds: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1953)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 5, 2020)

The first film version of the HG Wells tale, 1953’s The War of the Worlds opens with a prologue that tells us about the inhabitants of Mars. Their planet is dying, so they need new digs. All the other spots in the neighborhood won’t work for them, so they set their sights on Earth.

They come to our planet in disguise as a meteor, and the first one hits ground near a small California town. The inhabitants get all excited at first, and local scientists like Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) also get involved. Although the rock seems destined to turn into little more than a tourist attraction, it soon shows its deadly side and turns some locals into ashes.

From there the military gets involved as everyone finds out the real nature of the new arrival. More of them start to fall from the sky and the battle ensues. The movie follows the titular war between Earth and the Martians, with an emphasis on Forrester’s actions as well as his relationship with sexy student Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson).

Whenever a movie gets remade – or a novel readapted, in this case – folks will come out the woodworks to denounce the new version and acclaim the old. Heck, I did this for the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory myself.

Plenty of viewers assailed Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War as inferior compared to the 1953 affair from producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin.

Hogwash, say I. I won’t call Spielberg’s take perfect, but in virtually every category, it outdoes Haskin’s version. This movie seems so impossibly stiff and cheesy that I find it tough to imagine it played well 67 years ago, and it certainly hasn’t aged well.

When I originally reviewed the 1953 War in 1953, I harshly criticized the movie’s visual effects. 15 years later, I feel less strongly that they flop. They don’t hold up well but I don’t find them as problematic as I did in 2005 – partly because the Blu-ray’s restoration apparently attempted to hide some of the original flaws.

Even if I excuse the dated effects, other issues occur. Most of the film was shot on soundstages and in studios, and that seems readily apparent. There’s always an artificial look to the presentation that saps any believability from it.

The weak script doesn’t help, as this is one chatty war. The climax improves somewhat, but until then, we hear a lot more than we see.

The movie pours on discussions and interpretations of events but rarely shows them. This makes the short movie plod along without much to interest us.

We certainly won’t find entertainment or intrigue from the stock characters. Forrester offers the typical stiff scientist, while Sylvia exists for no reason other than to provide him with someone to tag along during the disaster.

As for the other characters, they rarely register. Sylvia’s peacenik uncle Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin) makes the biggest dent, and he gets one of the film’s best scenes. However, he doesn’t stick onscreen for long, and the other personalities lack much spark.

The only real amusement I get from this War comes from recognition of references to it found it later movies. The 2005 War uses at least one or two very similar depictions, and 1996’s Independence Day clearly pays homage to the segment in which the military drops an A-bomb on the Martians.

I must admit The War of the Worlds disappoints me. I didn’t expect the flair and panache of the Spielberg version, but movies don’t need to be shiny-new to be good.

Heck, I liked 1940’s Mark of Zorro although it was much less sophisticated than 1998’s Mask of Zorro. The 1953 War just seems cheesy and dull.


The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus B+

The War of the Worlds appears in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became a highly pleasing presentation.

Sharpness worked well. Some effects-heavy elements could look a little tentative, but those instances became inevitable due to the photographic techniques. Overall, the image offered nice clarity and accuracy.

Both jagged edges and moiré effects remained absent, and I saw no edge haloes. With a light layer of grain, I suspected no noise reduction, and print flaws failed to mar the proceedings.

Colors also looked solid. With a fairly natural palette, the movie’s hues came across as bold and firm.

Blacks felt appropriately dense and tight, while low-light shots presented good clarity and delineation. No problems emerged in this appealing transfer.

I felt pleased with the PCM monaural soundtrack of The War of the Worlds as well. Speech was generally concise and natural, as I noticed no edginess and had no problems with intelligibility.

Music appeared clean and lively, as the score presented good definition. Effects could be a little bright at times, but they still remained reasonably accurate and distinctive. The audio fared well for a movie from 1953.

This Criterion Blu-ray also included a newly-remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. Created by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, this version became a mixed bag.

On the positive side, the soundscape opened matters in a fairly satisfying manner. The track used the five channels to create a reasonably engaging setting, one that became more involving during the action scenes, of course.

Music didn’t hold up especially well in this vein, though. The score offered “semi-stereo” and didn’t show great localization. Effects blended pretty well, though.

Audio quality became an issue, however, mainly because the track appeared to use “non-vintage” stems for some of the material. These didn’t fit well with the original audio, so the combination of old and new failed to mesh in a convincing manner.

Put simply, the new stems didn’t match the old ones. These issues meant the track often just felt wrong.

Overall audio quality seemed fine, though again, the disconnect between old and new meant distractions. Distortion became more obvious in the remix as well. Burtt went a little too crazy with low-end, as the 2020 mix came across as too bass-heavy.

All of this made the 5.1 War a less than positive experience. Burtt tried too hard to make the movie sound modern and it just didn’t succeed, as the updated audio didn’t connect well with the film.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD from 2005? Visuals showed the expected upgrades, as the Blu-ray appeared tighter, smoother and more vivid than the DVD.

Audio turned into a more complicated matter, though. The DVD offered a Dolby Surround mix that I thought worked well – better than Burtt’s 2020 update, in fact.

I find myself more torn when it came to a choice between the BD’s mono and the DVD’s Surround. Normally I prefer to go with original audio, but I thought that Dolby Surround track on the DVD worked awfully well.

Honestly, I wish the BD went with a lossless version of the DVD’s surround mix, as I’d prefer that to the 2020 5.1 track. Still, the PCM mono audio here worked just fine, so I feel fine with it as the Blu-ray’s best option.

The Criterion release mixes old and new extras, and first we get an audio commentary from filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren. All three sit together for a running, screen-specific look at basic biographical notes about the actors and filmmakers, and we also learn a lot of tidbits related to the flick’s creation.

These largely focus on technical areas, as we find out how the visuals, effects and sound were done. We also get some very good notes about producer George Pal, with nice personal recollections.

Some of the best parts look into prior attempts to make a film of War. We get info about a 1925 script and hear about others who considered taking on the project; for instance, Alfred Hitchcock once nearly took the reins.

The participants all maintain enthusiasm for War. I may not agree with their feelings, but I respect their attitudes and think they bring a spark to the track.

This comes through when they chat about their personal experiences with the film and how it impacted on them. Overall, this commentary offers a nice level of detail about the movie and becomes consistently entertaining and enjoyable.

Next we get a documentary entitled The Sky Is Falling: The Making of War of the Worlds. In this 29-minute, 59-second piece, we hear from Burns, the Paramount art department’s Jack Senter, art director Al Nozaki, first assistant director Micky Moore, visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, George Pal: Man of Tomorrow author Justin Humphreys, visual effects supervisor Robert Skotak, costume designer’s daughter Diana Gemora, and actors Ann Robinson, Gene Barry and Robert Cornthwaite.

“Falling” covers the atmosphere at Paramount in the early Fifties, the slow path War took to the screen and the impact of the Orson Welles radio show, producer George Pal’s prior work, casting, locations, sets and various aspects of the shoot, visual design and Martian elements, other effects like miniatures, cut sequences, and the film’s success and legacy.

Inevitably, some of the material from the commentary repeats here. However, “Falling” keeps those elements to a minimum and brings out a lot of new information.

Even better, we get some fine behind the scenes footage. I love the test animation created by Harryhausen, and we also find many interesting raw clips. This is a tight and enjoyable little show.

A very fun addition, we get the infamous October 30, 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast. This lasts 57 minutes, 28 seconds and the faux newscast format continues to work really well.

I can see why it freaked out audiences so much back in the day, and it still seems chilling; the attack on Manhattan is particularly effective. It's a very good listen and a nice addition to this set.

Another intriguing piece, we get a 1940 radio interview with author HG Wells and broadcaster Orson Welles. It spans 23 minutes, 57 seconds and brings a chat about a few contemporary topics, with an emphasis on the burgeoning Second World War. I can’t claim anything scintillating results, but the conversation offers a fun time capsule.

With Movie Archaeologists, we locate a 29-minute, 28-second program that offers info from visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt. They contribute a general historical look at the film’s creation and some technical elements.

During much of the show, Barron and Burtt deconstruct and recreate the movie’s effects and audio. Along with general facts, those moments make this a fun view of the production.

From the Archive goes for 20 minutes, 28 seconds and offers info from Burtt, Barron and Paramount Senior VP Andrea Kalas. They discuss the movie’s restoration and give us notes about how the film got brought up to snuff for 4K – as well as why the Blu-ray lacks the obvious wires that held up alien ships on the DVD.

This becomes a decent examination of the processes, but I admit that the corrective work feels a little like rewritten history. However, perhaps the problems with the effects seemed less evident on movie screens than they did on DVD – that feels unlikely, as I’d think those wires would be more obvious on a large screen than on the 36-inch TV I used in 2005, but it’s possible.

Anyway, “Archive” becomes a moderately compelling look at the attempts to make War look and sound as good as possible. Inevitably, some of this feels self-congratulatory but we still find some intriguing notes.

From 1970, we discover audio recordings of producer George Pal as he addresses a seminar. In this 49-minute, 10-second tape, Pal covers aspects of his career. Pal seems charming and engaging as he offers plenty of useful nuggets about his work.

In addition to the film’s trailer, the package ends with a booklet. It involves art, credits and an essay from critic J. Hoberman. The booklet finishes matters on a satisfactory note.

Note that the Criterion Blu-ray drops an audio commentary from actors Ann Robinson and Gene Barry as well as a short featurette about HG Wells. I can’t claim to really miss either – especially the commentary, as it turned into a snooze.

While I try to view vintage movies through “old eyes”, 1953’s The War of the Worlds made this difficult, as almost everything about War dates it. I know that it maintains a prominent status in the history of science-fiction flicks, but nearly 70 years down the road, it doesn’t offer much entertainment for modern audiences. The Blu-ray boasts very good visuals as well as era-appropriate audio and a nice selection of bonus materials. The movie doesn’t hold up well, but this becomes a nice release for it.

To rate this film visit the original review of WAR OF THE WORLDS

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