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Review: Criterion Restores Byron Haskin's 1953 Adaptation of 'The War of the Worlds' to its Former Theatrical Glory

by Sam Cohen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jul 7, 2020
Review: Criterion Restores Byron Haskin's 1953 Adaptation of 'The War of the Worlds' to its Former Theatrical Glory

In terms of cultural longevity, H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" just may be a novel that endures in its bone-shaking terror. Disaster and alien invasion films were a dime a dozen, but a combination between the novel's history in popular media and the culture of paranoia that frequently rears its ugly head in America bolsters the story and its unique, eternal timeliness. Byron Haskin's 1953 big-budget adaptation still stands as one of the best ever produced, cheekily using audio and visual tools that were state of the art for the time to strike fear and awe in an American public that had the Cold War and atomic domination on their minds.

"The War of the Worlds" comes to Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, boasting a new 4K restoration that's the product of judicious and careful attention to restoring the film to its former theatrical glory. In a new featurette, we see that the restoration is sourced from the original three-strip Technicolor negatives that have seen better days. To get a proper representation of the original color timing, Paramount had to perform extensive research using old reviews and production documents to fully understand the way the film originally looked. Plus, the soundtrack was stereophonic and had also suffered great damage, which is another process to restore altogether.

A mysterious object has landed in a sleepy California town. Soon, a Martian invasion begins, and the entire earth is thrown into a tailspin with no signs of stopping. Nuclear physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) fights to understand why the aliens are here and how to defeat them, all the while traveling across scorched earth and betwixt survivors driven to madness by the arrival of extraterrestrials.

Part of why "The War of the Worlds" endures after all of these years is that it's uniquely attuned to the era in which it was released. The design of the aliens is clean and modern for that time, almost like a Hoover vacuum decided to turn around and attack its oppressors. It's at first kind of funny, but there's something uniquely perturbing about things we recognize turning against us in voraciously violent ways. To an extent, Wells' novel (and many of the adaptations) are critical of mankind and their increasingly unstable addiction to destruction. Such an old, preachy screed is given weight here by a team of artists that understood deeply what's so scary about American culture.

Yes, there's a bevy of special features to enjoy on this new Blu-ray, as is the custom with any Criterion Collection release. In addition to the aforementioned restoration featurette, there's a great booklet essay by J. Hoberman and a sturdy 2005 documentary about the making of the film. Anybody could have released "The War of the Worlds" on Blu-ray, but Criterion gives it the treatment it so rightfully deserves. Other special features include:

• New alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack created by sound designer Ben Burtt and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray
• Audio commentary from 2005 featuring filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren
• "Movie Archaeologists" -- a new program on the visual and sound effects in the film featuring Burtt and film historian Craig Barron
• "From the Archive" -- a new program about the film's restoration featuring Barron, Burtt, and Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas
• Audio interview with producer George Pal from 1970
• "The Sky Is Falling" -- a 2005 documentary about the making of the film
• The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" from 1938, directed and narrated by Orson Welles
• Radio program from 1940 featuring a discussion between Welles and H. G. Wells, author of the 1897 novel The War of the Worlds

"The War of the Worlds"
Criterion Collection Blu-ray

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