Monsters, devil worshippers, demons, ghosts, sadomasochistic inter-dimensional travelers…it can get to be too much. It’s time for the Horrorshow to take a step back from all the gore and scary stuff and spend some time with some nice, wholesome alien invaders.
From 1953 and adapted from the famous HG Wells story, The War of the Worlds is not the first alien invasion flick, but it is prototypical. A mass surprise invasion by alien beings in possession of unstoppable destructive power threatens to overwhelm the world. The situation is dire, the entire world mere days or hours from being conquered. But, against the odds, and due to providence, luck, good old-fashioned American ingenuity, or a thorough lack of understanding of the laws of nature on the part of the aliens and the screenwriters, the invaders are vanquished. And I mean vanquished. No alien invaders ever just get beat, or end up slogging into insurgency warfare (with the notable exceptions of V and Falling Skies, but that’s on TV). Aliens in these flicks get wiped out, in total, usually in a matter of minutes. The denouement in these films, The War of the Worlds included, can feel a bit rushed. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
In this film, the aliens are from Mars, that planet still being much of a mystery in the public imagination at the time of filming. They land on Earth in the form of blazing meteorites, and send the small California town of Linda Rosa into a tizzy, but not enough for them to cancel the Saturday night square dance. These first arrival scenes are anthropological relics that were interesting to watch. Part b-movie Americana fantasy and part snapshot of the times, I was struck by how different the America depicted in the film is from the view out my window. This doesn’t have anything to do with the film’s quality, but I think it’s fascinating that the more time passes, the more that older films will seem bizarre to future audiences. If I thought this was a fascinating relic, imagine what some future reviewer during the 200th Horrorshow will think.
After some initial setup where we meet the two protagonists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Sylvia van Buren (Gene Barry and Ann Robinson), the alien death machines emerge from their scorched spaceships. Here is when the film begins to shine.
The brushed copper alien craft, designed by Al Nozaki, are the true stars of the film. Their iconic design was purposefully meant to be a departure from the flying saucers that dominated sci-fi flicks and UFO reports of the time. The lower half of the machines resemble stiffened manta rays, while a slender, giraffe-like neck rises, topped by a lens and housing resembling a typical American street light. In fact, I remember first seeing this film as a young child, and immediately making the association with the lights on the street. During nighttime drives back from grandma’s house, I would lean my head back and look upwards out of the car window and watch the lights passing by on the highway, imagining that the car was fleeing the alien machines. Maybe I even imitated the screaming, pulsating sound effects made as the alien ships fired their death rays. Maybe I was quiet about it because I didn’t want my mother to think I was crazy.
When the aliens begin roaming the southern California countryside, they destroy everything. Special effects of the time were limited, but director Byron Haskin and his team worked magic, framing off screen events with onscreen actor reactions and sound effects where the task was too large.
The humans battle the aliens with conventional weapons and nukes, all to no avail, leading to the climactic battle in the heart of Los Angeles. Battle is the wrong way to describe it. Rather, it’s a rolling wave of death. Interspersed with these shots are scenes that take place in a church. Frightened Angelinos gather to pray for their salvation while the sounds of explosions and death rays grows louder. The second half of this film is just astounding, punching well above its weight, evoking quite explicitly Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation.
The War of the Worlds comes from a time when Hollywood storytelling was much simpler. But that does not make it a lesser film than something that could be made today. The War of the Worlds is classic science fiction, a must watch for fans of the genre.