War of the Worlds, The (Blu-ray) (Imprint Films) (1953)

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Released 27-May-2020

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Science Fiction Audio Commentary-with Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman
Audio Commentary-with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson
Audio Commentary-with Joe Dante, Bob Burns and Bill Warren
Featurette-Making Of-The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds
Featurette-H.G. Wells - The Father of Science Fiction
Bonus Track-The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast (1938)
Theatrical Trailer
Gallery
Trailer-Imprint Trailer
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1953
Running Time 85:25
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Byron Haskin
Studio
Distributor

ViaVision
Starring Gene Barry
Ann Robinson
Les Tremayne
Robert Cornthwaite
Sandro Giglio
Lewis Martin
Houseley Stevenson Jr.
Paul Frees
Case Standard Blu-ray
RPI $34.95 Music Leith Stevens


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 (1509Kb/s)
English Linear PCM 48/16 2.0 (1536Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (384Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (384Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    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.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Finally. Since catalogue titles started debuting on Blu-ray back in 2006/2007, film fans have eagerly awaited the release of the original The War of the Worlds, but nothing ever materialised for so many years. In 2018, Paramount even spent a bunch of money remastering the movie in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range to boot, but the remaster was only available to stream on iTunes with no sign of a disc release. But the wait is finally over, as Imprint Films (a subsidiary of Via Vision) has delivered this original classic in AVC-encoded 1080p high definition on Blu-ray. At the time of writing, there is no 4K Blu-ray release on the horizon - just a Region A Blu-ray from Criterion. This is pretty typical of Paramount of late, who are also sitting on a 4K UHD remaster of Chinatown which is yet to be released on disc. Anyway, The War of the Worlds is presented on a dual-layered BD-50 in its original full-frame aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and is mastered with an impressive average video bitrate of 32.17 Mbps. All of Imprint's releases boast impressively high video bitrates, though the resulting transfer is not exactly free of compression artefacts. Nevertheless, I was highly satisfied with the resulting transfer, especially since this is the first time I've watched The War of the Worlds in high definition.

    Owing to all of the special effects and compositing, as well as heavy use of dissolves for shot transitions, The War of the Worlds is full of optical shots. There's also a fair bit of archival footage, which is evident during several montages and is also incorporated into some of the set-pieces. Because of this, there's only so much first-generation photography that Paramount had to work with during the remastering process. The opticals are of varying quality, but, understandably, they're never as precise as the first-gen photography. Oh sure, these shots are still eminently serviceable and greatly benefit from the 4K oversampling as well as the meticulous remastering, but viewers will notice the difference. Likewise, the quality of the archival material greatly varies since these shots are considerably removed from the original negative, and there are some awful-looking shots with ugly frozen grain or blocky grain. Again, however, this is not a fault of the remastering or the encoding - it's the nature of 1950s filmmaking. Luckily, the first-gen material looks exceptional for the most part, with finely-resolved grain, satisfying sharpness and strong textures. The switch between first-gen photography and optical shots is obvious, as there's a noticeable drop in precision, and some optical shots are actually quite long. For instance, in the war room at the 56-minute mark, the film looks sharply-defined and bursting with fine detail throughout the scene, but it switches to an extended optical shot at 57:56 which sees a noticeable drop in quality. Also see a shot at 31:13, which appears to be an optical zoom-in and carries some very blocky-looking grain. It does look as if the grain has been slightly managed during the remastering process. Indeed, some shots look suspiciously clean and a touch smooth, so it's possible that some light digital noise reduction was applied, though this could be a limitation of the 1080p encoding. In addition to this, I noticed a few shots without precise camera focus, such as a close-up of Barry at 12:10, and there's also one extremely juddery shot at 23:24, which looks to have been deliberately slowed down in post-production.

    The added resolution is also unflattering towards the Martians, who look every bit like fake, paper mache creations. Compositing imperfections are also more evident in high definition (see 82:30), but that's all part of the old-world '50s charm. Much has been made of Imprint's encoding, and it's pretty solid for the most part, especially during the first-generation material which, as previously stated, looks consistently sharp with well-defined grain. However, there are some shots throughout the film with exceedingly blocky grain that lack precision and tightness. Several shots of the sky around the 30-minute mark exhibit some grain which borders on macroblocking (31:32 looks especially rough). It's not as bad in motion, but pausing such shots is very unflattering. Another example is a shot at 66:40, looking through binoculars at one of the war machines emerging from smoke. In fact, the encode does struggle whenever smoke is involved; the aforementioned shots of skies usually involve smoke, which explains this macroblocking pattern. Another example is 82:04 as Clayton and Sylvia embrace in the church - the grain looks exceedingly blocky, there's a bit of macroblocking in the smoke, and fine detail is mediocre. Additionally, some shots of the military vehicles opening fire on the Martian war machines at the 36-minute mark show poor grain delineation, and even a bit of banding in the skies and smoke. There's some extremely noticeable banding in the sky above the tank at 37:10, which looks very poor indeed. Thus, the encoding is a mixed bag - again, most of the static first-gen stuff looks sensational, but the encoding occasionally falters during other, more complex shots. I'm sure most of this stuff won't be caught by most, but videophiles will scratch their heads.

    Furthermore, colours throughout the transfer also vary depending on the material. Again, the first-generation material looks gorgeous from start to finish, which is reflective of the vivid Technicolor process - it's the reason why Technicolor stock was so popular back in the day. Primaries are healthy and beautifully saturated, with the Martian war machines looking more vivid than ever. Naturally, the optical shots noticeably exhibit more faded colours. As previously discussed, since shots throughout the movie are usually quite long, the optical shots heading into a scene transition are unusually prolonged - and such shots are not as eye-catching as the first-gen material. There are limitations to the 1080p encoding, since it is only Standard Dynamic Range while the iTunes stream is mastered with HDR. Some of the bright lights from the Martian war machines obliterate highlight detail on faces, while the lights themselves normally look blown out. The colour palette would also certainly be augmented with the benefit of HDR.

    The restoration itself is absolutely superb, as Paramount pulled out all the stops to immaculately archive this sci-fi classic. Just like Paramount's equally sublime work on It's a Wonderful Life, the movie looks pristine and immaculate throughout - there's scarcely any minor or major print damage aside from a few brief moments (plus, some minor artefacts are apparent in stock footage), and the master is pleasingly stable. Indeed, there isn't even a hint of gate weave, not even during the opening titles, though some compositing is understandably a bit wobbly. Controversially, several wires attached to the war machines were removed during the remastering process. Although this sounds like blatant George Lucas-esque revisionism, that's not strictly the case. Indeed, the wires were scarcely visible on original cinema prints, which is actually discussed in one of the commentary tracks. On original Technicolor prints of the movie, the wires could barely be seen, but when it was reprinted with cheaper Eastmen Colour stock, the wires suddenly became visible. Not everybody will agree with this, and perhaps there should be an option to watch it with or without wire removal, but I can't say that it's a big issue for me. Another controversy has also arisen over the colouring of the Mars artwork by astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell, which is tinted blue here as opposed to orange/red. This traces back to Paramount's remaster - it was not a choice on the part of Imprint/Via Vision. The intended colour of Mars is up for debate, though the Criterion release changes the Mars tint to orange/red, which is how it has looked on home video previously. Pick your poison, though again it doesn't bother me much.

    This review does sound overly negative in places, but it's not my intention to make out that this is a bad transfer - quite the contrary. Make no mistake, the first-generation photography throughout The War of the Worlds looks sensational, and fans will find the transfer to be a revelation after being stuck with the dated DVD for so long. The term is thrown around so loosely, but compared to the old DVD, it truly is a day-and-night difference. Nevertheless, as previously discussed, there are inherent limitations to the source since it's full of optical shots and there's some archival footage to boot. The remaster is state-of-the-art and it would be impossible to do top it unless the optical shots were digitally re-composited from the original negs, and that won't ever happen. For the most part, the movie looks great on Imprint's Blu-ray, some slipshod encoding aside. I can imagine The War of the Worlds looking superior on a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, but let's be grateful that we actually got this disc in the first place. I'm sure that there will be endless comparisons to Criterion's encode with the red/orange version of Mars, but rest assured that Imprint's disc looks very, very good.

    English SDH subtitles are included, and the track appears to be free of issues.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The War of the Worlds comes to Blu-ray with two audio options: the original 2.0 mono track encoded in Linear PCM, and a recently remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. The 5.1 track was devised in 2018 by the brilliant sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.); therefore, this is the first time that the track has debuted on home video (outside of the iTunes stream). I primarily concentrated on the 5.1 track for the purposes of this review, and the expansion of the soundscape is genuinely spectacular compared to the original mono. As far as I can tell, the 5.1 remix is faithful as well; I was unable to detect any noticeable instances of revisionism, aside from the use of separation effects. The remastering itself is remarkable, as Paramount did a great job of tidying up the sound for maximum clarity and the best listening experience possible. It has never sounded this clear before.

    The opening newsreel montage understandably remains mono and front-centred, with not even the most perfunctory of surround sound use...until Leith Stevens' dynamite opening theme kicks in, which extends to the rear channels. When the Martian ship crashes down to Earth at the very beginning, there's actually some separation for some shots, making the soundscape more immersive. Atmospherics often push to the rear channels, from crickets lightly chirping (see 6:18) to dogs barking in the background (see 10:55), and the eerie sounds of the Martian ships in the farmhouse at the 49-minute mark. Music during the square dance scene also pushes to the rear channels, while the sound of the Martian ship unscrewing is isolated to the rear at 13:47. The subwoofer isn't frequently engaged, but there's agreeable impact to several sound effects, such as the impact of the Martian ship crashing on Earth, or the explosions and gunfire (see the Martian war machine destroying the car at 21:35, or the entire night-time battle at 35:40). Of course, however, there is only so much that can be done with the sound due to some of the stock sound effects and the limitations of the era's recording equipment.

    On that note, the dialogue is primarily front-centred, and scenes without any ambience or music are essentially mono, since the rear channels remain silent during such moments. As a result, this is not exactly the most dynamic track, but the remix is effective all the same, and I'm sure that audiophiles will prefer this 5.1 track over the original mono. (Though I'm sure some would prefer an object-based mix.) Prioritisation is superb, with dialogue always sounding clear and comprehensible, and never sounding drowned out by music or sound effects. However, I actually detected a few pops throughout the 5.1 mix, though it's unclear if this is source-related or a result of the encoding. See, for instance, a shot change at 49:45 which results in an audible pop (I tested this on my 7.1 surround sound system as well as TV speakers - the pops are there). Outside of this, I couldn't detect any other problems - no sync issues, drop-outs, or hissing. Some minor shortcomings aside, this is a highly satisfying audio mix which is as much of a revelation at the remastered video presentation.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Imprint have put together a solid collection of special features, featuring new and archival content. The release comes with a limited edition slipcover that's limited to the first 1,500 copies. The best part about the limited slipcover edition is that the intrusive ratings logos are easily removed.

Audio Commentary with Film Critics Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman

    This is a brand new audio commentary with film critics Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman, which appears to have been recorded exclusively for Imprint Films' Blu-ray release. They come in strong at the beginning, expressing their excitement about The War of the Worlds finally arriving on Blu-ray. They discuss the history of sci-fi movies, the Chesley Bonestell artworks featured at the beginning, the Orson Welles radio adaptation, the original H.G. Wells novel, and the production history of The War of the Worlds. (Alfred Hitchcock was in contention to direct, and Ray Harryhausen did tests for his vision of the Martians.) The two men are clearly enthusiastic about the film as well as filmmaking in general, and there's scarcely a dead spot as they wax lyrical about Leith Stevens' score, the sound effects, the special effects, and more. They even defend the thinly-written characters, and discuss the recent BBC War of the Worlds miniseries. This is not an essential commentary, but it is a fun listen full of spirited discussions and interesting tidbits.

Audio Commentary with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson

    Leading actors Barry (who passed in 2009) and Robinson sit down for the second commentary track on this disc, which was recorded some 15 years ago for the movie's 2005 DVD release. They keep the track scene-specific, talking about the opening newsreel footage, the iconic artwork by Chesley Bonestell, the subtle Woody Woodpecker cameo, producer George Pal's cameo, the use of footage from When Worlds Collide, and more. Robinson is the most lively of the two: she even points out a moment when her voice changes to ADR in the middle of a conversation, and she makes a number of other amusing observations throughout the film. Robinson also points out that some stock footage and photographs were taken from a real-life earthquake. And she didn't know how to drive a bus towards the end of the film. The commentary isn't always energetic, and at times they struggle to think of topics, but this is still a gem of a track that long-time fans should definitely listen to.

Audio Commentary with Joe Dante, Bob Burns and Bill Warren

    The third and final commentary on the disc features three fans of the movie. The discussion is frequent, fast and energetic; they discuss the actors, the special effects, the reception in 1953, how terrifying certain moments were back in the 1950s, and more. Since none of the men were involved in the production, they can only recall scene-specific tidbits they've gleaned over the years - they even reveal that producer George Pal wanted to do Martian tripods in stop-motion, but didn't have the budget to execute it. Another fun fact relates to some brief location shooting in Arizona involving the military vehicles, and Barry and Robinson's last shot during production involved a tank driving past them - a decision which could've been made in case they were run over. Interestingly, the participants also mention that the filmmakers tried not to use opticals as much, due to the limitations of optical shots - but the movie still features a fair few of them. This commentary is fun in places, but I can't say it's the most consistent or engaging track on the disc.

The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds (HD; 30:00)

    Produced in 2005 for the "Special Collector's Edition" DVD to tie into the release of the Steven Spielberg remake, here we have a 30-minute archival featurette about the making of the movie. The featurette contains interviews with a terrific selection of cast and crew, including Barry and Robinson, actor Robert Cornthwaite, first assistant director Micky Moore, art director Al Nozaki, and more. Even Ray Harryhausen gets the chance to speak about his ideas, and there's footage of his Martian animation test. Although somewhat short, this is a top-notch exploration of the production history, going over the Orson Welles radio broadcast, obtaining the film rights to the novel, recruiting the cast and crew, and more. Filming memories are recounted, including Byron Haskin's approach to directing, and the special effects are covered in satisfying detail - there's even some visual FX dailies. Robinson even recounts a couple of moments that were cut from the finished movie. The release and reception is also touched upon, and there are plenty of behind-the-scenes photos scattered throughout. This is well worth watching. Presented in 1080p, but it's from an SD source.

H.G. Wells - The Father of Science Fiction (HD; 10:26)

    Another archival extra produced in 2005 (though a bit more amateurish), this is a profile of H.G. Wells which briskly covers his life and works. Some archival footage of Wells is even included, which is fascinating, but I can't say that this is essential viewing overall. Like the previous extra, it's encoded in 1080p but was taken from an SD source.

The Mercury Theater On the Air Presents: The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast (1938) (HD; 59:10)

    Here we have the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds from 1938, which terrified some listeners who didn't realise that it was actually fiction. I've listened to this radio drama several times before, and it's a nice inclusion to the disc. The only visuals we get throughout the broadcast are three photos of Welles at the microphone which occasionally alternate.

Original Theatrical Trailer (720p; 2:19)

    Here we have a proverbial theatrical trailer, which is in pretty rough shape - film artefacts abound. A nice inclusion to round out the extras.

Photo Gallery (HD; 4:55)

    And finally, we have a generous collection of poster art, promotional images, stills, and behind-the-scenes photos which depict both the main unit photography as well as the special effects crews at work. There is no way to manually advance between photographs, this is just a silent slideshow. Would a bit of music be too much to ask for?

Imprint Trailer (HD; 00:26)

    Imprint further announce themselves and their intentions with this short promo advertising their first five Blu-ray titles.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Compared to the Region A Criterion release of the movie, Imprint's disc misses out on:

    However, the Criterion disc misses out on:
    This is a tough call, especially since the Australian disc has the Barry and Robinson commentary. Hardcore fans will want to own both editions to get everything available, but that's your prerogative. I'm calling this one a draw.

Summary

    The War of the Worlds is a childhood favourite for many, including this reviewer. It's regarded as a pivotal science-fiction movie and is frequently held in high regard, but there's no getting around the fact that it has aged badly. It's still an impressive visual achievement for its time, but it's overly stilted and has limited appeal for today's audiences. Your mileage will vary.

    Imprint Films brings The War of the Worlds to Blu-ray for the first time in the world. The Blu-ray presentation is extremely strong, though not without minor shortcomings, and there's a sizeable collection of special features that will have fans busy for days. This one comes recommended, though be sure to try before you buy. Oh, and for those interested, this release is region free.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Callum Knox (I studied biology)
Wednesday, July 01, 2020
Review Equipment
DVDSony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayLG OLED65E6T. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 2160p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
AmplificationSamsung Series 7 HT-J7750W
SpeakersSamsung Tall Boy speakers, 7.1 set-up

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