Release Date(s)1953 (May 27, 2020)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Via Vision/Imprint Films)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: This is an Australian import Blu-ray release but is coded for ALL REGIONS so it will work on US Blu-ray players.]
When a meteor crash lands near a small California town one evening, the local residents have no idea that it’s actually the opening shot in a full-scale Martian invasion of Earth. But when the meteor opens to reveal a manta-like “war machine” that hovers in the air and decimates nearby objects with a powerful heat ray, the military quickly leaps into action. The brilliant scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) leads an all-out effort to stop this Martian threat, which has begun to appear all over the planet. But before long, it becomes abundantly clear that no technology invented by Humanity can stop the alien menace. Ann Robinson also stars as the daughter of the town’s preacher (and requisite love interest for Forrester).
Based loosely upon the classic 1898 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, the fact that director Byron Haskin’s 1953 film adaptation exists at all is largely a result of the project having been championed by legendary film producer George Pal. Updated with an American Cold War setting, the film’s invasion theme—coupled with its emphasis on “super science” to save the day—was a perfect fit for the tastes of audiences at the time. Red Scare/McCarthy paranoia, flying saucers, and atomic weapons—these things were regular topics of discussion in American newspapers during this period. Matched with its vivid three-strip Technicolor production and iconic special effects, The War of the Worlds became a critical and box office success upon its release, and eventually an all-time classic of 1950s science fiction filmmaking, ranking alongside The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956) as a landmark of the genre.
Imprint’s Blu-ray release is mastered from a brand new 4K scan and restoration of the original negative elements done by Paramount in 2018. It’s presented here on disc at the proper 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The good news? For the most part, the resulting image is gorgeous. Fine texturing is lovely, with a significant increase in detail over past DVD editions. You can see this early on in the crisp pattern of Robinson’s jacket as she watches the meteor crash (while standing with a crowd in front of a movie theater—you can even read the “Snowflake Popcorn” label on the snack box right behind her). Film grain is present and natural-looking but never distracting. Note that the wires holding up the Martian war machine miniatures have been digitally removed—they’re no longer visible at all. Contrast is excellent, with deep blacks. But there is one issue: For some inexplicable reason, in the process of color grading the film, the opening image of Mars (as painted by artist Chesley Bonestell) was left with too strong a bluish cast—it should be red with just a touch of blue. This is no fault of ViaVision and Imprint Films; clearly, nobody at Paramount caught this error because it’s the same on the available Digital 4K versions too (Vudu, iTunes, etc). And frankly, that’s astonishing. Mars is known as “the Red Planet” after all. (It’s worth noting that Criterion has vowed to correct this error for their own Blu-ray release in July.) As presented here, this Blu-ray’s video grade must be knocked down a little accordingly (I’d have given the image presentation an A- otherwise). But at least the rest of the film’s coloring appears to be correct.
Audio-wise, the Imprint Blu-ray includes the film’s English soundtrack in both remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 as well as an LPCM 2.0 track that preserves the original theatrical monaural sound experience. Note that while the film’s sound was originally recorded using Western Electric’s then-new Multi-track Magnetic Stereophonic Sound System in “three-track stereo,” only a small handful of theaters were able to exhibit the film that way at the time. What’s more, it’s believed that those original audio elements no longer survive. But the 2.0 track is quite good—it’s the way most of us have heard this film for decades now. And the new 5.1 mix is absolutely fantastic. It was actually created in 2018 at Skywalker Sound by Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt specifically for the restoration. The 5.1 mix retains much of the 2.0 track’s sonic flavor, while widening the front soundstage a bit and adding a fuller and more robust tone (with a bit more bass as well). The rear channels are used for a nifty bit of atmosphere and some light panning and directional effects (blowing wind, the sound of the fireball passing overhead, the war machine’s “lid” unscrewing, heat ray and weapons fire, etc). It’s quite a fun mix—I actually almost prefer it to the mono. (Heresy, I know.) Note that optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also available.
Imprint’s Blu-ray release includes the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with film critics Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman
- Audio Commentary with cast members Gene Barry and Ann Robinson
- Audio Commentary with famous fans Joe Dante, Bob Burns, and Bill Warren
- The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds (SD – 30:00)
- H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction (SD – 10:26)
- The Mercury Theater on the Air Presets: The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast from 1938 (HD – 59:10)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:19)
- Photo Gallery (HD – 4:55)
- Imprint Trailer (HD – :26)
That first commentary was created exclusively for this release. It features film historians Kim Newman (author of the Anno Dracula novel series) and Barry Forshaw (author of the excellent BFI Classics: War of the Worlds book). It’s lively and quite entertaining, with stories and anecdotes I certainly hadn’t heard before. Also unique to this release are the Photo Gallery (which features 59 HD images of publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and promotional artwork) and the Imprint trailer (which promotes other films in the label’s first wave of BD releases). All of the other content is carried over from Paramount’s 2005 Special Collector’s Edition DVD release of the film. The original Mercury Theater on the Air Presets radio broadcast is a treat if you’ve never heard it before. The featurettes are short but offer quite good content. The Sky is Falling retrospective features interviews with much of the talent from the older commentaries, plus additional artisans who worked on the film (and were alive at the time). Meanwhile, The Father of Science Fiction offers some nice history on H.G. Wells himself. My favorite of these extras by far is the “famous fan” commentary with director Joe Dante, my dear friend (and the keeper of Hollywood’s attic) Bob Burns, and film historian Bill Warren. It’s a fun track and genuinely informative. The package also includes a lovely cardboard slipcover with the original poster artwork (at least for the initial batch of discs) and different sleeve artwork.
The War of the Worlds’ arrival on Blu-ray Disc has been far too long in coming, but I’m pleased to say that it’s mostly been worth the wait. Imprint Films has delivered a nice all-region package that treats the film with respect, preserves all of the previous DVD content, and adds a couple new items too. Some of you might prefer to wait for Criterion’s Blu-ray edition (due to hit stores next month) for its color timing fix and additional unique extras. But do keep in mind that the Criterion release will not include the Newman/Forshaw commentary, the Barry/Robinson commentary, the H.G. Wells retrospective, or the Photo Gallery. So for my own part—as a longtime fan of this film—I’ll be pleased to have both this disc and the Criterion edition on my video shelf. Definitely recommended for those of similar mind.
- Bill Hunt