Producer George Pal’s thumbprint on science-fiction and fantasy films was big. A new limited edition, two-disc set from Paramount Pictures joins two of his best films, The War of the Worlds (1953) and When Worlds Collide (1951). It’s a lovely tribute.
The War of the Worlds (dir. Byron Haskin) is hokey, but it looks great. Like the H. G. Wells book on which the movie’s based, it focuses more on the scientific and martial effort to repel a Martian invasion of Earth than it does on the civilian response. By today’s standards, Gordon Jennings’ special FX might seem too old-fashioned for certain viewers. CGI (mostly) leaves me cold. I relish the films that created their FX by hand. Rich with bold Technicolor, this movie’s then-state-of-the-art, Oscar-winning FX pop. Forget the tiresome romance of the one-dimensional leads (Gene Barry plays an astronomer; Ann Robinson is his plucky gal). Never mind the pious overtones. If you want a doomsday spectacle, the movie delivers. The death rays of the alien pods warm the cockles of my heart. As I get older, my appreciation for movies as live-action museum pieces grows. The War of the Worlds is of its time. That’s its charm. I can’t fault it (that much) for being sluggish or corny.
My sentiments about When Worlds Collide (dir. Rudolph Mate) are nigh the same. I wish it moved faster. As with The War of the Worlds, the cast is all white. Most of the performances are bland, too. Yet the premise intrigues: Scientists discover Earth will collide with a rogue planet. After a rich douchebag (John Hoyt, a campy hoot) funds a rocket ship (a new-age Noah’s Ark) that’ll send a select group of survivors to another planet for safe harbor, questions about who gets to go, and how this dilemma plays out, create conflict. The FX charm; the matte paintings and miniature model work are things of beauty. Had a campier sensibility taken hold—and had I been able to suspend my disbelief more (the way a pilot gains the trust of the scientific elite stretches credulity beyond all reason)—When Worlds Collide would be a major classic. As it stands, it’s a minor one.
Both movies are fun, if antiquated, sci-fi benchmarks. Cinematically speaking, Pal moved the genre forward. The new Paramount set is a fine epitaph.
Disc 1 of the set presents The War of the Worlds in 4K Ultra HD. Special features on the disc include audio commentary by actors Ann Robinson and Gene Barry. Also included is a separate commentary by director Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren, along with a making-of featurette, a look at the H. G. Wells legacy, a copy of the Orson Welles-led radio broadcast of the story, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Disc 2 is a feature-less, Blu-ray version of When Worlds Collide.
[Editor’s note: There is a color grading issue with the opening shot of Mars in The War of the Worlds. Those who would like to learn more about it can read the reporting at The Digital Bits.]