Release Date(s)1953 (December 15, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- 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.
The War of the Worlds was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by cinematographer George Barnes in the aforementioned three-strip Technicolor format (using specially-designed Technicolor cameras with spherical lenses—you’ll find more details on this process here via the George Eastman Museum) and it was finished photochemically at the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Paramount commissioned a full 4K scan of the original three-strip Technicolor negative in 2018, followed by digital restoration and color grading for the film’s Digital and physical Ultra HD release (note that both Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10 are available options on the disc). Imprint’s Ultra HD offering is essentially an exact duplicate of Paramount’s recent 4K counterpart (reviewed here). For the most part, the resulting image is gorgeous. Fine texturing is lovely, with a significant increase in detail over past DVD editions (and a more modest boost from the recent Criterion and Imprint Blu-ray editions as well). 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 organic looking (though there is some question as to whether any grain should be visible at all, given the fact that the process of producing release prints from three-strip Technicolor tended to eliminate it). Note that the wires holding up the Martian war machine miniatures have been digitally removed—they’re no longer visible at all (and were never intended to be). Contrast is excellent, with deep blacks.
But there is one issue here and it’s significant: 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. And frankly, that’s astonishing. Mars is known as the “Red Planet” after all. The whole point of having Bonestell paint Mars for the film was that he was known for his astronomical accuracy, having worked regularly with NASA. Lifelong fans of The War of the Worlds will certainly know that the blue cast is wrong. Paramount’s previous DVD graded the color correctly. The Criterion Collection, when they released their Blu-ray version of the film in 2020, graded it correctly too. But when confronted with their error here, Paramount issued this official response:
“We sincerely appreciate fans’ passion for War of the Worlds and their attention to detail. The scene that has been referenced as being more blue than red was taken from the original three-strip Technicolor negative. Paramount chose not to employ additional color correction, but instead consulted original IB Technicolor prints and matched the look from there.”
That’s simply nonsense—obviously, the studio doesn’t want to incur the cost of correcting the color and re-issuing the disc. The way you know it’s nonsense is that the planet appears the proper color in the original theatrical trailer included on the 4K disc! At least the rest of the film’s coloring appears to be correct. Nevertheless, the 4K video grade for this release has been knocked down accordingly. (It would have earned an A- otherwise.)
[Editor’s Update 9/29/22: Interestingly, I found this comment on Facebook from former ILM animator, VFX supervisor and film producer Peter Kuran, responding to Paramount’s statement: “The reason it would be blue would be theatrical IB tech prints are balanced for a carbon arc light source which is very yellow. Better to use a 16mm IB Tech print which is balanced for 3200-3500 more normal.” That seems a reasonable conclusion to me. –BH]
Audio-wise, the 4K release includes the film’s English soundtrack in remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. 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 new 5.1 mix is absolutely fantastic. It was 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 original mono’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.) Dolby Digital mono mixes are included in German and French only, and there are optional subtitles available in English, English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, German, Spanish, Latin Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, and Dutch.
Also included is Imprint’s previous Region Free Blu-ray release, which is mastered from the same 4K scan and restoration, and features the same color grading error. Where it deviates is in its audio and extras selection. It includes the same DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, as well as an LPCM 2.0 track that preserves the original theatrical monaural sound experience. It’s also quite good, and is the way most of us have heard this film for decades now. (It’s just a shame that purists won’t have this option on the 4K disc.) Subtitle options on the Blu-ray are included in English SDH.
Each disc contains the following special features:
DISC ONE (4K UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson
- Audio Commentary with Joe Dante, Bob Burns, and Bill Warren
- The Sky Is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds (SD – 29:59)
- H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction (SD – 10:29)
- The Mercury Theater on the Air Presents: The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast from 1938 (HD – 59:30)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:20)
DISC TWO (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman
- Audio Commentary with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson
- Audio Commentary with 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 Presents: 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)
Most of this content is carried over from Paramount’s 2005 Special Collector’s Edition DVD release of the film. The original Mercury Theater on the Air Presents 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 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 commentary with 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) was created exclusively for Imprint’s Blu-ray release. It’s lively and quite entertaining, with stories and anecdotes I certainly hadn’t heard before. Also unique to this disc are the Photo Gallery (which features 59 HD images of publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and promotional artwork) and Imprint trailer (which promotes other films in the label’s first wave of BD releases).
Not carried over from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release are the Movie Archaeologists and From the Archive featurettes, a 1970 audio interview with George Pal, and a radio program from 1940 featuring a discussion between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells. The Paramount Ultra HD release also included a 4K Digital copy code for the film not available here.
The War of the Worlds on Ultra HD is an upgrade of the first entry in the Imprint Collection line of titles. Both of its discs sit inside Steelbook packaging that features a rendering of one of the aliens on the front and a still of Robinson’s character being grabbed from behind on the reverse. The Steelbook is housed inside a thick slipcase that features a gorgeous lenticular 3D cover (note that Mars is the correct red color on it) and contains a new 44-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by David J. Schow, as well as a collection of the film’s posters and lobby cards from around the world. This release is limited to 2,000 units and is available exclusively through Via Vision Entertainment’s shop (click here for that).
The War of the Worlds’ recent arrival on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray was too long in coming, but I’m pleased to say that it’s mostly been worth the wait. Both Imprint and Paramount have 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. As a longtime fan of this film, I’m pleased to have these discs (plus the excellent Criterion edition) on my video shelf. Imprint’s new 4K release is definitely recommended for those of similar mind.
- Bill Hunt