It's one of the heavyweights of 1950s SF, with a massive budget for the time, Oscar-winning special effects and storytelling that I prefer both to H.G. Wells's original and to the 2005 Spielberg film.
What's good about it, for me, is its storytelling and humanity. War of the Worlds, for me, is a story that tends to feel a bit empty. The Spielberg version is scarier, but it's never been clear to me why I'm being expected to care on any level above the visceral. It's a disaster movie, but with Martian war machines instead of earthquakes or volcanoes.
This on the other hand, has characters who live, breathe and engage with the situation like intelligent beings. The film's first act actually startled me in how much they've added to a fairly dry original. When the meteor comes down, for instance, a good deal of time and effort is expended on giving personality to the locals who go off to look at it. It's quirky. There's humour. There's a chubby cop who looks like Lou Costello and performs a similar story function. They even have a square dance, complete with Gone With The Wind costumes, which is a delightful thing to find in a War of the Worlds movie. Ann Robinson isn't a good actress, but she's been given far more to play than she needed for her "What's that, Doctor?" plot function. Gene Barry is offbeat and at first seems almost dozy as Dr. Clayton Forrester, which is also distinctive.
This is fun to watch, but it also adds impact when the killings start. I've seen scarier Martians, but the fact that you've got to know the locals means that I was shocked when the heat ray opened fire. It's nasty, almost cruel. The priest's death in particular is powerful, especially given the integrity and thoughtfulness we'd just seen from this little man of God. "Beings from another world!"
The film doesn't even lose its human dimension when the military get involved and the invasion goes global. I really appreciated the effort put into demonstrating that this is a worldwide problem and America is just one country among many, which is a perspective that can be rare in this kind of movie.
There's thematic depth. The threat is brought firmly into the nuclear age, which is done intelligently. Admittedly it's disturbing to see how close ordinary people are to ground zero of the government's eventual nuclear reprisal, but in 1953 that was normal. We didn't understand the full dangers of radiation. From a modern point of view, this adds another scary historical resonance to the film's nuclear theme... but the intentional stuff includes an EMP pulse, radiation, speculation that the aliens' rays are atomic-powered and the sight of people being blasted to ash as they were at Hiroshima. One man even gets skeletonised, in a shot that required 144 individual mattes.
A more interesting change though involves the film's use of religion, especially at the end. This theme is applied with a sledgehammer and a lot of people dislike it, but what I like about it is the fact that it redeems Wells's half-arsed resolution. The Martians blast churches, in which people are praying for a miracle and lo! it arrives. "After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth." (Wells used more elevated vocabulary, but I'm quoting the film here.) This makes sense of what might be SF's most famous deus ex machina, while furthermore the movie had previously foreshadowed it by having its scientists get a Martian blood sample and start analysing it with a view to striking back against them biologically.
The most powerful statement in the movie though, for me, is the mob. When the scientists at last have found a lifeline that might save mankind, along comes looting, destructive humanity to slit its own throat.
So that's the important stuff, i.e. the storyline has been beefed up to be stronger and more intelligent, instead of being empty blockbuster nonsense with soldiers shooting at aliens. However the empty blockbuster nonsense side of things is impressive too. It's so spectacular, in fact, that it paradoxically helped to kill big-budget SF in the 1950s and doom the genre to low-budget schlock. It's one of a tiny handful of proper blockbuster SF movies from that decade, you see, others including Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth
, that went for full colour and lots of special effects. War of the Worlds in particular spent 1.4 million dollars (in 1953!) on its special effects alone, doing massive battle scenes with Martian war machines that still look amazing today and what was at the time real front-line guns and vehicles for its human military. It looks fantastic. However it also lost money at the box office, just like all those other massively expensive films I mentioned. The big studios thus became allergic to big-budget SF and stayed that way until almost the end of the 1960s, leaving the field open for Japan to sell Godzilla movies and the like.
The war machines aren't tripods, though. The filmmakers tried, but they couldn't make it work. Instead the war machines fly and look like manta rays, with death rays in the most glorious Technicolor reds and greens you've ever seen. We see much less of the Martians themselves, but they do occasionally pop out to give us a quick flash and I thought they looked cute. Everything about them has been designed in threes, right down to their single big eyeball.
Obviously there have been lots of War of the Worlds adaptations, including the famous 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast, three movies just in 2005 and a 1988-1990 TV series that's a sequel to this film. It ran for 43 episodes and got Ann Robinson back to reprise her role. However this movie is both the first movie adaptation and my favourite so far. Paramount had actually bought the rights in 1924, which brings a whole new meaning to "development hell". Filming was briefly halted two days into the shoot when they learned they only had the rights to make a silent movie! (Spielberg's 2005 version was also for Paramount and as a homage to this original, he cast Gene Barry and Ann Robinson in his movie as the grandparents.)
The estate of H.G. Wells was so pleased with this that they offered George Pal his choice of anything else by Wells for his next movie. He chose The Time Machine.
Overall, it's good. It's not hitting greatness, since after all it's still The War of the Worlds, but it's a good 1950s alien invasion flick that sets a standard its contemporaries almost all failed to live up to. It does "epic" better than any other fifties film I've seen so far, not to mention even outdoing most of its descendants half a century later (e.g. Independence Day). It summons more warmth and personality than I'd ever expected from an adaptation of this particular book and it's influenced generations of filmmakers ever since. I was impressed.
"We could show them we're friendly; go out there with a white flag. I've got an old sugar sack in my car."