Saturday, November 12, 2005

Across the Gulf of Space: War of the Worlds (1953)

1953 was a great year for science fiction films. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury) wrecked havoc upon the streets of New York courtesy of famed stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, Donovan’s Brain came pulsing to life co-starring the future First Lady Nancy Reagan, Invaders from Mars and It Came from Outer Space (the latter title based on a screen treatment by Bradbury and is one of my favorite SF films from that era) both haunted and amazed audiences with their Cold War paranoia, and then there was War of the Worlds. It’s been a little over 50 years since its release and it still looks amazing, let alone the power to enchant and dazzle me with its hovering alien spacecraft bent on burning the world and everything in it to cinders. This George Pal production, directed by Byron Haskin, deviates plenty from Wells’ classic novel, but the essence and the melancholy mood remain intact. If you’ve never seen it, I urge you to do so now, especially since Paramount has given the film a splendid presentation on DVD. The saturated color palette (courtesy of Technicolor) has never looked as surreal and ravishing as it does here, and the disc comes with multiple commentary tracks (one with stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson; the other with director Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and genre critic/writer Bill Warren, who penned one of the pivotal and landmark books on the science fiction films of the Cold War era, Keep Watching the Skies!), which I haven’t yet listened to but will shortly. The film’s deadly earnest performances (a requirement for any good SF film) also charms the pants off me and reminds me why I used to love watching it over and over again every time it played on KPTV Channel 12 once or twice a year. This was pre-cable and VCR days folks, so I used to anxiously wait for it to hit the airwaves. Of course, the thing I liked most about it were the aliens and spacecraft. Sure, the special effects may lack the thunder of Spielberg’s recent remake (a film that is high on my Year’s Best list, by the way) and those ghastly wires attached to the menacing metal machines are clearly visible in many shots. But the film still casts a spell on me regardless, and I still fall into the illusion with the ease and comfort of a weary mind descending into a favorite dream.

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