The new Criterion Collection disc of War of the Worlds has arrived, and it is a stunner. As mentioned above, it is one of the best Technicolor restorations I've ever seen. To add value to the package, Ben Burtt, the sound genius behind the original Star Wars films, has remastered the soundtrack to stereo, 5.1 Dolby Digital. That's included on the new disc (along with the original mono soundtrack for purists) and it makes watching the film that much more fun.
War the Worlds is a film I've always held close to my heart because I think it's terrifically entertaining. When I was a kid, I found parts of it terrifying. This was a movie made in the shit-scared Atomic Fifties, so it contains a tone of dread that I have always responded to. My late Aunt Marie used to describe every death in the family as “our latest tragedy,” which indicated that she saw life as a never-ending series of tragedies, occasionally interrupted by weekends and major holidays. I have tried not to look at life like this, but War of the Worlds (and The Blob from 1958 and most Godzilla movies) have this palpable sense of dread that I find very compelling and sad. I remember thinking back when I was much younger that the scariest thing was Godzilla appearing on the horizon and the humans trapped in the city being powerless to do anything to stop him. I used to dream about that scenario in nightmares that made me glad that I seldom remember my dreams. Gene Barry, running through the deserted streets of downtown LA, trying to find Anne Robinson as the city is destroyed around him contains this same sickening tone. The looting and madness that surround Barry remind us that in its cold, Martian heart, War of the Worlds is a disaster movie made a full twenty years before that genre became popular. And disaster movies always show us human nature at its worst...
LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: Hollywood’s “Go-To Gorilla Guy,” Charlie Gamora shows up here as the one Martian we get a good look at. In a fascinating supplementary featurette, his daughter remembers helping her Dad completely remake the alien costume the night before shooting because the producers didn’t like what Paramount’s costume department had dreamed up. Using chicken wire and rubber sheets, they toiled through the night and came up with one of the most memorable alien designs in Hollywood history. Gamora’s daughter remembers that when they shot the scene the next day, her father worked the alien’s fingers, she was under the set with a squeeze bulb making the alien’s veins pulse, and the entire costume was still wet, not having been given sufficient time to dry! I have a little plastic model of this alien above my desk. He keeps watch over me, night and day, and insures that I never get out of line.
The Technicolor picture on the new disc is amazing. It's got that full, dark, deep, rich color that only early Technicolor had. It reminds me of screen-printed lobby cards from the '30s and '40s or a kind of fairy tale storybook color. It's fantastic. As one of several special features on the disc points out, the special effects were very advanced for 1953. When Paramount stopped making prints in Technicolor and started to make them in Eastman color, specifically brighter and brighter prints for television, that began to reveal some of the special-effects magic -- specifically the wires on the Martian Death Machines. This led a generation of people to think that the special-effects were sort of quaint in their laughable crudeness. The new restoration on the Criterion Collection disc puts that risible argument to rest because it looks stunning. All of the wires are gone now. I wondered if that was because they went back to the original Technicolor specs and “look” or if some digital painting magic had been applied to the film. On the restoration featurette, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt take pains to assure us that they didn’t go overboard with modernizing the look of the film: they claim that they didn't go Bull Goose Looney with digital tools. They wanted to maintain the integrity of the original film, but a little later on in the same featurette, the head of the Paramount Pictures archive does indicate that there some digital painting was used to get rid of the wires. One way or another, I prefer my War of the Worlds to be wire free!
The new Criterion Disc is so full of supplements, it's certainly worth picking up, especially in the next two weeks when the “Barnes & Noble 50% Off Sale” is still going on. This amazing disc, which will be one of the Disc Releases of the Year, I promise, can be had for about 20 bucks. Pack a sack lunch two days this week, and with the money that you're saving by not going out to lunch, you can you can pick up this terrific disc.
Joe Dante. The minute I finished watching the film, I immediately watched it again with the commentary track on. I don't do that very often. but War of the Worlds certainly rewards repeat viewings, even repeat viewings on the same day! That audio commentary is quite the calling card for the two men (unfortunately Bill Warren passed away a few years ago) but just to hear these three science-fiction enthusiasts waxing appreciative over this film is an impressive listen. At one point, Bill Warren asks Joe Dante the name of certain extra, and Joe Dante says, “Well, I can't see him; his back is to me.” Then Warren gives Dante a single arcane hint, and Dante instantly comes up with the actor's name! That is something marvelous, to say the least. I wish that were my superpower; unfortunately, my only superpower is getting the single best parking space whenever I drive to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, the happiest place on earth.
NOTE: For those readers who missed the first column in this series, this essay has not been proofread nor copyedited by anyone, not even a Martian. Using space-age technology, the content of this piece was vomited directly from JB’s Id onto the F This Movie website early this morning.