The first cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells' renowned 1898 novel of the same name, The War of the Worlds endures as one of the most defining science-fiction films of the 1950s. Following in the shadow of The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide, but appearing before the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, this ambitious 1953 production uses the premise of an alien attack to play on the Cold War-era paranoia about foreign invasion. There is no denying the historical or cultural significance of this original The War of the Worlds, with its groundbreaking special effects and a daring story about malevolent invaders which scared the living daylights out of audiences back in 1953. However, there is not much in the way of humanity or substance to this sci-fi thriller, which also appears noticeably dated in many respects.
When a flaming meteor from outer space crashes near a small town in California, scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is quickly drawn to the impact site, along with scores of tourists and curious locals. Deciding to pursue further examination of the meteor, Clayton soon meets beautiful librarian Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) who is excited to learn about his work. However, the meteor turns out to be one of several alien crafts that have landed around the Earth, from which powerful Martian war machines emerge to obliterate cities and eradicate humans. Although the American military is quick to act, invisible shields protect the war machines which are impervious to all of humanity's weaponry. As the Martians intensify their relentless assault, Clayton and Sylvia desperately endeavour to find a scientific way to defeat the invaders, turning to Clayton's colleagues at Pacific Tech for help.
Although sci-fi movies existed before The War of the Worlds, there had never been anything quite like this before. The screenplay by Barré Lyndon shoots down all notions of a benevolent alien race as the first characters to make contact with the Martians are summarily incinerated - the invaders are "cool and unsympathetic," in the words of H.G. Wells. Additionally, Lyndon's adaptation majorly deviates from Wells' original novel in several ways, but perhaps the most notable is the film's perspective on religion. For instance, a sympathetic pastor (Lewis Martin) plays a considerable role in the first act before dying as a martyr, and the conclusion strongly implies that divine intervention is what leads to the Martians' defeat. These religious overtones are not uncommon for the era but do not play as well in 2020, especially the abrupt ending that feels sudden and anticlimactic.
Directed by Byron Haskin on a modest $2 million budget, the scale of The War of the Worlds is genuinely extraordinary for the era. Especially considering the crude special effects technology of the early 1950s, the imagery of the flying Martian war machines destroying cities is undeniably remarkable. Captured by cinematographer George Barnes (The Greatest Show on Earth), The War of the Worlds was shot in gorgeous Three-Strip Technicolor, which creates a striking, vivid filmic image. Although the visual effects are dated by 2020 standards, the design of the Martian war machines is commendable, deliberately resembling manta rays, while the accompanying sound effects are highly inventive. However, the design of the actual Martians is much less successful, as they look downright silly and laughable. It is difficult to share Sylvia's terror when she comes face to face with one of the Martians, which is a major problem. Furthermore, there's an undeniable "stagey" feeling to large swaths of the film, since The War of the Worlds was primarily shot on studio sound stages and the actors frequently stood on sets in front of extensive matte paintings. Unfortunately, this creates an artificial aesthetic, though the artistry is still easy to appreciate.
More problematic about The War of the Worlds is the lack of humanity; the movie features dull, one-dimensional characters who feel more like archetypes than actual humans. Unsurprisingly for a 1950s sci-fi flick, the story mostly concentrates on scientists and military men, and there is no room amid the spectacle for any authentic character development. Additionally, the characters do not even carry any recognisable personality traits. Some of the dialogue is memorable, such as the proclamation of "Once they begin to move, no more news comes out of that area" which is referenced in the 2005 Steven Spielberg remake, but there's simply no solid emotional core to supplement the death and destruction. Consequently, it is difficult to become fully involved and invested in the proceedings. Nevertheless, the actors themselves are fine, with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson giving it their all despite playing glorified archetypes, but nobody deserves any awards.
The War of the Worlds still has ample merit, and there is no denying its ineffaceable influence on sci-fi cinema which remains apparent in the 21st Century. The special effects are impressive for the era, while the accompanying music by Leith Stevens is memorable and impactful - the main title theme is especially fantastic. Nevertheless, especially due to the film's often stilted disposition, this iteration of The War of the Worlds is virtually obsolete for today's audiences, and is only an essential watch for cinema or sci-fi enthusiasts. As blasphemous as it may sound to some, I greatly prefer Steven Spielberg's 2005 remake.