Wednesday, May 13, 2009


War of the Worlds is probably one of (if not the) first sci-fi event movies. It's the Independence Day of its era. There's a lot to like about the movie, and for the most part it holds up extremely well. It's hard to imagine how completely flippin' old this movie is when you consider that it was originally released more than half a century ago. Something about that fact just does not compute. I remember seeing this on t.v. as a kid and being impressed more than I ever was with Godzilla movies, which I actually enjoyed was just that the aliens in this movie were so menacing, and I remember wondering how they made everything look so real. Well, now that I'm an old middle-aged fart living in the age of CGI, the efx in this movie aren't quite as impressive today...but when you consider this flick on its own terms and in the context of when it was made and released, you can't help but be totally blown away.

The first thing to know about the movie is that it clearly signals to its audience the cold war gender roles of the 50s. Now, as you can probably tell from this cap, the film was made in the early 50s, which means the 40s are still a heavy influence. Look at that unsuspecting crowd noticing what looks like a meteor as it falls from the sky and lands in a fiery blast of light just over the first hill on the horizon outside of town. There isn't a juvenile delinquent among them, no rock-n-roll influence, no black people. (There is, to be fair, a latino, which is a step in the right direction). This movie is telegraphing a new society that is post WWII, Cold War, Christian (notice the priest) conformist culture. An idealized conformist culture under attack by EVIL ALIENS!!!
I imagine the character of Sylvia Van Buren must have been cringe-inducing to the many women who had worked during the war years only to be forced back into the kitchen and motherhood once their husbands returned and the war was over. Even though she's got an advanced degree, she spends the movie either (when she's being productive) praising the male characters, serving coffee and donuts, or (when she's not being productive) fainting, screaming and having hysterics. Now, not to bag on the actress that plays Sylvia, she does a great job. It's just that Sylvia is most definitely a woman of the 50s: no femme fatale, no gritty know it all, none of that 40s b.s. Like I said it's all about the new conformism, and Sylvia conforms quite perfectly.

Believe it or not, there is a QUEER QUOTIENT in this film and if you blink you'll miss it. It's at the beginning, right before the crowd outside the theater reacts to the falling meteorite. Look at that big hunk of early 50s man working the marquee! Look at the ass on that guy! Not to mention the legs just itching to burst out of those painted-on jeans. YUM!
Here's the hapless trio of volunteers who are charged with keeping an eye on the smoldering rock overnight, who decide that, once the rock opens up and an alien being comes out, that being friendly is the best way to respond. Comic relief abounds. One guy says, "What do you say to an alien from another planet?" or something to that effect, to which the other guy replies "Welcome to California." The commentary comes in handy during moments like these to shet some light on how impressive, scary and spectacular this movie was in its day. Joe Dante (director of Gremlins) provides commentary along with some older guys who saw the film upon its initial release when they were like 12, the perfect age for boys to see a movie like this.

Of course, we all know what happens when those peace-loving, tree-hugging, commie pacifist namby-pambies try to make nice with the alien invaders: THEY GET DISINTEGRATED by the ALIEN HEAT RAY! Let the attack begin!
The attack sequences are still pretty impressive even if you can tell they're done with miniatures. Still, even in this age of CGI perfection, it's fun to watch a movie like this made so long ago and see what a great job they did of pulling off such visual illusions. The commentary, again, comes in handy in explaining how they made those death rays shoot out, how big the space ships were, etc. Remember, this is 1953. These efx, while dated, are certainly nothing to sneeze at and are quite impressive and deserving of admiration.
Unfortunately, somehow in the digital transfer and stuff, the contrast is different and in some scenes you can clearly see the strings holding up the spaceships, even though according to the commentary they were not visible on the film when the movie played in theaters.
But onto some of the more successful efx. Here's a general getting zapped and disintegrated by one of the mysterious green SKELETON BEAMS that shoot out of the alien ships.

Here's a tasty breakfast Sylvia manages to whip up while she and the hot scientist she's got a crush on hide out in an abandoned house. Of course, bacon and eggs are the perfect relief when the end of the world happens! In fact, I'll just take the bacon, thanks, that'll be enough for me. And I don't need the end of the world to happen. I'll just take the bacon. Please.
Oh, but damn! Before bacon can be consumed, another of those pesky alien meteorites nearly destroys the house, trapping Sylvia and the hot scientist inside. Again, an impressive effect for its time and for several decades after, IMO.
Then there's the whole "beat the clock" portion of the flick, where humanity tries to figure out how to beat the aliens once they (humanity) have realized that conventional weapons don't work. Here they've hooked up a camera and monitor to a severed alien eye/anal probe thingy, and so they get to "see what the aliens see." It's a cheesy scene that borders on the psychedelic but you can just imagine how hi-tech it must have seemed at the time.

And here's the money shot, that of L.A. City Hall being blasted to smithereens. Didn't I tell ya it's just like Independence Day? Except no African Americans. None. We've come a long way!

At the end of the day, humanity is saved when the aliens dare to try destroying a church in downtown L.A. were our protagonists have managed to reunite after a long, horrific separation. As the heterosexual couple embraces inside the church, and as the alien beings aim their deadly weapons, something...MIRACULUOUS happens. All of a sudden, the aliens succumb to GERMS and they all simultaneously die. Humanity, heterosexuality and cold-war conformity are all SAVED by the implied hand of a Christian God, who apparently has all the other religions of the world under his umbrella of safety as well.
There's also a gorgeous shot of the building I work in, which is always fun for me. Being the old War Dept. Building in L.A. it tends to pop up in films from back then and it's always a thrill to see it. I think I'll start a collection of screen caps from old movies, just to see how many I can collect.

Overall, this movie is a classic sci-fi popcorn blockbuster event and it's definitely worth watching on a Saturday afternoon when you have no errands to run and nothing else you feel like doing but sitting around in your undies, eating popcorn, forsaking the gym and vedging out. The commentary track is definitely worth checking out if you are a film buff, sci-fi fan, or some other geek who likes to hear other people discuss a movie as you watch it with them. There's also a well-made documentary that is typical of its kind...not exactly ground-breaking, but you do get to see many of the film's leads and production staff and hear a lot of anectdotes about acting in the movie, and how they made the special effects, and reactions to the film at the time it was released. Hey, if you've read this far, renting this flick if probably a no-brainer. Or you can buy it for $6.99. There's not really anything wrong with it. It's perfect, distinctly American, crowd-pleasing sci-fi popcorn fare from another era.
And how can you pass up a chance to experience Sylvia's many hysterical outbursts?

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