Criterion’s lovingly remastered “War of the Worlds” (1953)…


For those seeking a more in-depth analysis of this movie (as I normally do in this column), I’ve already done a retrospective of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” a few years back ( War and Remembrance: “The War of the Worlds”), so I won’t rehash Wells’ book, the various films, or the TV series for this column today. This column will focus exclusively on the Criterion Collection’s 2018 remastered Blu-Ray of the first film adaptation–producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin’s 1953 film of “War of the Worlds.”

At war with “War of the Worlds.”

Saintly “Uncle Matthew” (Lewis Martin) meets his maker through the cobra-head like weapon of a Martian war machine.

I’ve always enjoyed the 1953 version of “War of the Worlds”; as a kid I watched it whenever it came on local TV stations, usually in grainy, muddy prints that ravaged the movie’s gorgeous Technicolor palette. Of course, having never seen the film theatrically, I literally didn’t know what I was missing back in those days. Over the years, I saw marginal improvements made to the movie. A VHS copy I bought in the mid-1990s had a somewhat cleaner image than the TV prints, though, being VHS, the image was very mushy. A barebones Paramount DVD release from the mid-2000s sharpened the image and boosted the color levels, but left in all the film grain, muffled sound, scratches, etc. It also lacked any bonus features, save for a trailer. While I’ve always appreciated the movie as an important sci-fi classic, seeing it on TV or video always felt like gazing at an unpolished gem.

Gene Barry is astonished as Martians fall prey to Earth illnesses in a crisp, vivid screencap from Criterion’s “War of the Worlds.”

Several years ago, I’d read that the Criterion Collection was releasing an all-new restored version of the movie on Blu-Ray, struck from a 4k print, with digitally removed scratches/grain, fully restored Technicolor and an all-new 5.1 soundtrack remixed by no less than “Star Wars” sound maestro Ben Burtt himself (!). But, like an idiot, I resisted buying it when it was first pressed, since I already owned the movie on the previous, no-frills, crappy-looking Paramount DVD, so I kept asking myself if it was worth the double-dip? Well, in a word, yes. It very much is, in fact…

Criterion Cravings.

Criterion is a company I’ve respected since their laserdisc days back in the 1990s, when I was a diehard laserdisc aficionado (see: Still crazy after all these years; why I continue to collect physical media ). Their painstakingly restored releases of both important and obscure titles in film history always caught my eye (and ear), though their releases often came with a hefty price tag as well. Whereas a typical 1990s laserdisc copy would run about $25-30 a pop, that same title remastered by Criterion could run $50-100 or so. Occasionally I would find a title on sale and would snatch it up, but by and large, they were often priced out of my budget.

Then, of course, in 1997 we saw the US release of the DVD format, and that changed everything. DVDs were small, cheaper, conveniently-sized, and didn’t have to be flipped over every 30-60 minutes of playback, like my beloved laserdiscs. While I initially resisted the changeover to DVD, I eventually broke down and bought a deck soon after my fiancee and I got married in 1999. She already had a DVD drive in her old Gateway computer (don’t judge) and the picture and sound quality I saw on her computer’s monitor were both gorgeous.

I’ve wanted to get my mitts on this one for three long years…

Despite my grudging appreciation for DVDs, I saw that a few Criterion laserdiscs still looked far superior to their DVD releases, though much of that had to do with the finer quality of prints used for Criterion’s video transfers than in either format’s picture quality. Criterion eventually began releasing their laserdisc library in DVD as well as all-new releases, and a decade later they adopted the high-definition Blu-Ray format as well. 24 years after the birth of DVD, and 15 years since Blu-Ray, Criterion releases are still the creme de la creme of high end physical media video releases. Yes, they are generally more expensive than standard issue DVDs and Blu-Rays, but you usually see where the extra money went.

I’ve slowly but surely built my library of Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray collection over the years, with such titles as “Chasing Amy,” “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” “Solaris,” “Brazil,” “Time Bandits,” “Jules Et Jim,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “M,” “Roshomon,” “The Seventh Seal,” and many others. As with most networks and media companies of the 21st century, Criterion has also launched an online ordering catalog and streaming service as well:

The “War” Comes Home.

This past weekend, my local Barnes and Noble bookstore (one of the few remaining brick and mortar outlets for buying physical media these days) was having one of their rare Criterion sales–all titles half off, which placed the typically expensive $39.99 priced titles into a more affordable $20 (and even less, with my Barnes & Noble membership discount). Since I was already there to buy coffee and a much wanted book, I decided to peruse the Criterion sale as well. There were a few titles I was tempted to rebuy (“Midnight Cowboy,” “Tootsie,” “Night of the Living Dead”) but I already had good-enough studio released copies of those films, so I resisted buying them once again. However, near the end of the rack I came face-to-face with the Blu-Ray copy of “War of the Worlds,” and in a ‘what-the-hell’ moment, I tossed it into my basket (yes, I need a basket when I shop Barnes & Noble, because I’m an incurable book and media nerd–don’t judge!).

Taking a cautious peek: Gene Barry as “Dr. Clayton Forrester” and Ann Robinson as “Sylvia Van Buren” in a pivotal scene from the 1953 classic, which set the table for “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” in 1956, and even 1996’s “Independence Day decades later…

Once I got the movie home, I decided to break it open and watch the bonus features on the restoration first; the Blu-Ray comes with a bevy of bonus content, including several making-of documentaries, as well as archived interviews with original writer H.G. Wells (from the 1940s) and George Pal (from 1970), but I was most interested in the restoration. Seeing the restoration featurettes before the film would not only prepare me for what to expect (quality-wise) but also give me a greater appreciation for the efforts of Ben Burtt and FX-restoration expert Craig Barron. Barron, like Burtt, also cut his teeth on the original Star Wars trilogy.

The plethora of bonus features on the Blu Ray, as well as the remastered movie itself, made this one worth the double-dip for me.

Other bonus materials include writer/actor/director Orson Welles’ complete 1938 Mercury Theatre radio play of “War of the Worlds” (the one that Americans mistook for a ‘real’ Martian attack), as well as archive audio interviews with original “War of the Worlds” author H.G. Wells talking with the younger Welles, in a conversation from the early 1940s. The author and actor kid each other about America’s overreaction to Welles’ little ‘Halloween prank’ from a few years earlier. There are also audio interviews with producer George (“The Time Machine”) Pal and director Byron (“Robinson Crusoe on Mars”) Haskin about their work on the 1953 film. Haskin would also work on the original “Star Trek” series as well as “The Outer Limits,”

The few documentaries on the Criterion restoration run about 20-odd minutes each, detailing the work Burtt and Barron put into the digital image cleanup as well as the new 5.1 surround sound mix. Stereo sound was a feature that original director Byron Haskin greatly wanted for the original 1953 movie’s release, but the technical expertise for it at that time didn’t yet exist. Now it does.

The echoing, ‘sshheeessshing’ sound of the cobra-headed Martian heat ray weapon is one of many sounds Ben Burtt has in his arsenal; others had to be recreated from scratch.

Burtt took many of the film’s original audio elements and made an enveloping audio field that gives the explosions and Martian invasion scenes considerably more oomph. However, the new mix still feels like 1953 movie-era sound–like memories I have of listening to older, ping-ponging stereo LPs made in the early 1960s. Yet the restored soundtrack is curiously invisible as well. To those who don’t know that the movie wasn’t recorded in native stereo sound, they might just assume this was an early stereophonic release. Luckily, the Blu-Ray comes with the original (cleaned up) monaural audio for purists, not to mention several audio commentaries as well, if one chooses.

Note: Audio FX pioneer/genius Ben Burtt kept his own files of the Martian weapon sounds, which he used in remixing the new 5.1 surround track for the 4k remastering. The green skeleton energy blips’ distinctive reverberating noise was also the basis of TOS Star Trek’s “photon torpedo” sounds as well. He also recreating the cobra head weapon’s distinctive “sheeshing” noise by playing with reverberating electric guitar chords.

Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) sees herself through a Martian’s eye–if only her character had some of the actress’s pluck.

Visual effects artist Craig Barron, who also worked on the “Indiana Jones” movies as well as “E.T.” and “Poltergeist”, supervised the cleanup of the 4k film restoration by painstakingly removing scratches, dirt, blemishes, and other film artifacts from the decaying master print. He also boosted the color saturation, which brought back the original’s lustrous deep color levels, with ruby reds, emerald greens and oceanic blues. The original prints of “War of the Worlds” had Technicolor’s vibrant, three-strip color, comic book feel–and Barron’s team successfully reproduces the rich colors and deep black levels of Oscar-winning cinematographer George Barnes’ work.

The old-style opticals (no digital FX) of the Martian energy weapons were painstakingly and faithfully recreated by Craig Barron’s team for the Criterion release–simply because they could.

On one of the bonus featurettes, there is a segment in which Barron and his FX crew recreated the energy weapons of the movie optically by forensically recreating the techniques used for the film (the green energy blips were partially created using a Tesla coil and a blow dryer run through color filters). The Criterion restorers didn’t have to go this extra mile in recreating this unused b-roll shot from the movie, but it does go to prove their passion for the film’s restoration that they remade some of the FX work using outdated analog techniques from almost 70 years ago.

Smart way to hide the guide wires on the crashing Martian war machines–have them crash into miniature telephone wires.

A potential nitpick among film history purists that might set off some ‘George Lucas Special Edition’-alarms is the use of modern digital wire removal from the Martian war machines, as the heavy, copper-plated models were suspended above large miniature landscapes by plainly visible piano wire. Even as a kid, watching the movie on a 25″ Zenith TV set, the bright TV prints would expose some of these wires to a less-than-discriminating audience. Some might cry ‘foul’ at the use of digital trickery to remove these visible wires from the film, but I don’t mind; as I’m pretty sure the darker, grainier, 16mm theatrical prints of the movie used in its initial release probably hid those piano wires well enough. Scenes of the Martian war machines crashing down into L.A. streets (as their Martian pilots succumbed to the common cold) hid the use of wires by having the ships crash into miniature telephone poles–thus confusing the miniatures’ guide wires with those of the telephone poles.

As with Ben Burtt’s 5.1 audio mix, nothing distracting or previously unseen is visibly added to the movie (unlike the Star Wars special editions). Everything that is changed or cleaned up is done only with the film’s original intent in mind. The wire removal only gets rid of an unwanted element that the filmmakers lacked the tools to remove themselves back in 1953.

War and Remembrance.

Test footage from stop-motion artist/animator/filmmaker Ray Harryhausen’s proposed “War of the Worlds.” The Martian in this version is very close to the description of the gravitationally challenged creatures in Wells’ novel, right down to the brown leathery skin and cephalopod-like beak and tentacles.

One of my other favorite bonus features on the DVD set is a half hour 2005 documentary on the making of “War of the Worlds” titled “The Sky is Falling,” which features interviews with original cast members, including the insightful Ann Robinson and the late Gene Barry, as well as many others who worked on the film, and even an animation legend who almost worked on the film–the late, great Ray Harryhausen. There is test footage of a stop-motion Martian that would’ve been used if a proposed Harryhausen version of the film got the green light; sadly, it didn’t.

Ann Robinson as the perpetually frightened Sylvia. Even in this shot, the movie’s vibrant Technicolor hues saturate the frame.

The movie rights to Wells’ novel languished for nearly 30 years (going back in the silent era) before finally being sold to and made by producer Pal and company for the 1953 release. The interviews with the surviving crew and cast members are especially heartwarming, as they are accompanied by many behind the scenes photos of them clowning around on set, with Robinson dressing up as a Martian herself, complete with glittery tights and ray gun! It’s a shame that her character in the movie is never allowed to have the pluck or playful wit of the actress herself. “The Sky is Falling” was no doubt produced to cash in on the release of the 2005 Steven Spielberg remake, yet it’s a treasure trove of information on the original film’s making, and it’s inclusion in this set is more than welcome.

I had the pleasure of meeting Robinson in person a few years ago at WonderCon Anaheim in 2017, and she is not above playing a good prank or two herself–here, she pretended to ‘sneak up’ from behind me, mimicking the Martian shoulder tap from the film.

Personal Note: I once met Ann Robinson at WonderCon four years ago, and she was both humorous and delightful. When we posed for an impromptu photo together, she playfully crept up from behind me and grabbed my shoulder–recreating the same move the Martian does to her character, Sylvia, in the movie. She made me laugh, and I adore her. Both Robinson and the late Gene Barry also appeared in the 2005 Steven Spielberg remake as the parents of Tom Cruise’s ex-wife in the film, played by Miranda Otto.

Spoils of War.

The Martian’s snorkel-camera uses a lens that mimics the red, green, blue inputs of the singular Martian eye.

So, am I happy that I double-dipped on “War of the Worlds”? Yes, I am, absolutely. Seeing the movie’s vibrant restoration literally made me gasp aloud at times, it was so gorgeous. Criterion’s “War of the Worlds” washes away all of the dirt, scratches and grime from those earlier prints I’d grown with, and finally allowed me to see the film for all of its glorious, Technicolor splendor. It’s a revelation.

Viewing Options.

To those who’d like to sample the riches of the Criterion Collection without going into massive debt or being stuck with a piles of DVDs and Blu-Rays? There is, as stated above, a Criterion streaming service, and here is the link to directly browse the Criterion Channel. Enjoy!

The Other War.

Whether you choose to order Criterion physical media online, in-store, or surf the Criterion Channel, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones safe viewing during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 610,873 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, vaccines are widely available and inoculations are widespread, though a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (roughly 40% of the US population) is slowing herd immunity and giving the virus room to fester and mutate. The overwhelming majority of COVID-related deaths in the United States are with unvaccinated persons. Even fully vaccinated, it’s still be possible to catch the coronavirus (and its variants) and spread it, though a fully vaccinated person’s chances of getting seriously ill are lessened.  If you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic. This is one ‘war’ we can beat if you all get our jabs/shots.

Take care.

Images: Criterion Collection, Paramount, Author.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. I just bought and watched this a month ago. Still love it.

    Now you mentioned a TV series. Are you referring to the 1988 series or the newer one that came out a year or two ago (I think)?

    1. Both.
      In my original column, I mentioned the 1988 series (blech!) and the more recent series, which was only hinted at in trailers when I wrote that column.

      Full disclosure: I still haven’t seen the most recent series.
      Hopefully soon.

  2. A terrific read – and I’ve definitely put this on my wish list. You’ve done a great recommendation and I think criterion should thank you!.

    1. Much appreciated, and thank you!
      Maybe they can pay me in trade? 😂

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