Published in 1898 and telling of the relentless invasion of overzealous Martians upon the people of earth, H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds is quintessential sci-fi almost like no other. Whether your familiar with it from reading the original novel, hearing Orson Wells famously traumatise an entire generation with a 1938 radio broadcast, rocking out to Jeff Wayne’s long running album/musical, watching Steven Spielberg’s mega-budgeted blockbuster or binging any one of the numerous tv series made, chances are you’ve experienced it in some form or another. For me, however, War Of The Worlds is best personified by the very 50’s movie adaptation that bored it’s way into my respective psyche at a very young age and beyond the typical blaring brass score and hysterical women that seemed to populate every science fiction escapade of the decade, lies a superlative tale of possibly the greatest alien invasion ever told.
In southern California, a large object hurtles from the blackness of space and imbeds itself in the dirt near the town of Linda Rosa. The local yokels are initially excited, thinking that a meteor may mean a slight boon in tourism for their quaint surroundings and by chance, well-known atomic scientist Clayton Forrester swings by to take a gander after visiting the area for a spot of fishing.
However, as he starts to theorize about the meteor while taking time out to woo pretty science instructor Sylvia Van Buren inbetween, the smoking thing opens to disgorge a large, silvery manta ray looking thing that unleashes hell from the heat ray that explodes from a protruding antenna. It turns out that it’s a Martian war machine and as two more craft emerge from the meteor, reports of other strikes come in from around the globe as these intergalactic invaders indulge in their M.O. of obliterarate first, ask questions never.
Clayton and Sylvia attempt to flee the carnage in a nearby plane (yeah, good luck with that), but are forced to take temporary shelter in a ruined house where they eventually have a close encounter of an uncomfortably intimate kind when they come face to face with not only some forms of alien technology, but also one of the aliens themselves who proves to be surprisingly handsy for a being set on complete and total domination.
Escaping from the house with some damaged tech and a sample of alien blood, Clayton and Sylvia manage to make it to a lab to get it picked over while the indestructible war machines trash enough major cities around the world to make Roland Emmerich blush, but just when they think they might be able to find a flaw in the Martian’s biology, the equipment is smashed by panicking civilians desperately looking for a way out of dodge. Does this aggressive play for earthen real estate mean that this the end of mankind once and for all?
While I’ll freely admit that there’s certain aspects to 50’s alien invasion cinema that hasn’t exactly dated well, anyone who can dismiss something as balls out awesome as Byron Haskin’s bombastic epic really needs an attitude adjustment. Sure, if you want to get personal you could argue that the lead roles played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson with deadly earnest are somewhat stiff with the later in particular having not much more to do than scream from beneath a fringe so extreme it could act like an awning in direct sunlight, but this doesn’t dilute the fact the War Of The Worlds is stuffed with deliciously iconic moments that sear it’s way into the consciousness with the accuracy of a Martian death ray.
One of the immediate things you notice is that fact that the movie is refreshingly brutal and is often unflinching when having numerous screaming townsfolk reduced to ash at the receiving end of a shrieking laser – take the sight of three guys gingerly waving white flags in a doomed attempt to make peace directly with what is essentially the barrel of a fricking cannon, or the town pastor essentially trying the same trick while his niece Syliva goes hysterical. Make no mistake, War Of The Worlds is as cold blooded as a snake in the arctic and while most movies of the area would tackle an invasion by aliens in a small, subtle way like The Thing From Another World and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, these alien bastards have no compunction about going big. In fact, even watching it now it’s stunning to see a genre flick indulge so much in rampant destruction and the fact that we puny humans are able to put up a single response that’s worth a damn – they even nonchalantly shug of a damn nuke at one point.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t score some impressive iconic scenes in its smaller moments too. The moment where our leads cower in a trashed house only for a curious Martian to place its suckered fingers almost jovialy on Sylvia’s shoulder is god-level, 50’s, sci-fi horror thanks to the look of utter terror etched on her face.
The effects are superlative, rightly picking up a Best Visual Effects Oscar thanks to the extraordinarily awesome war machines – subtly altered from the tripods from the original novel – that still are incredibly intimidating to this day thanks to their design and some deeply unsettling sound effects (I can hear that ebbing alien pulse in my head even now). While it’s true that maybe the Martians themselves look a little ropey in comparison – less is definately more in this respect – the climactic shot of an alien arm reaching limply out of a hatch is a quietly triumphant image every bit as powerful as an exploding Death Star or a crashing mothership.
Ah, yes. That ending. While much has been made about the tale ending with a devastating (and incredibly convenient) twist involving the invaders succumbing to harmless bacteria in the atmosphere, it probably works in this version best as the aliens take a sudden dirt nap literally as things look their bleakest. As the attack finally reaches the church our heroes are praying desperately for salvation in, it truly seems that the end is nigh and hope will soon be as extinct as the trembling homo sapiens within. Having the invasion end so suddenly at that thus crescendo of despair is a masterstroke as you’re far too relieved for our leads to start picking holes in this fatal dose of deus ex machina, something that Spielberg’s 2005 remake would have done well to emulate.
An exceptional example of monumental blockbuster filmmaking before even such a thing existed, War Of The Worlds is exhilarating, nihilistic, scary and – most of all – awesome even after all these years.
“The martians had no resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere.”gravely intones the narrator at the end of the movie and similarly, you should have no resistance to this.