Movie Review - War of the Worlds

by Stephen Morris

Reviewed October 9, 1996

The 1953 movie War of the Worlds was based on the classic 1898 story by H.G. Wells. It was filmed in the 1950's as a parable of the technological dangers facing humanity after the horrors of World War II. Included in the movie are snippets of future technology from a 1950's perspective, as well as using much of Wells' vision of the future from the turn of the century.

Martians, like Earthlings, are facing a planet which is becoming increasingly uninhabitable. The Martians see Earth as a place to re-establish their civilization. Within the solar system, only one planet can sustain life for the Martians, and that is Earth. The idea that humans have no where else to go is not lost on the viewing audience. In the end, humans see the Earth as one wracked with devastation and destruction. Newsreel shots of burning cities in Europe during WWII are used in the movie to depict the destruction by the Martians. Science and technology has failed to provide the answers to the invasion; the people are reduced to praying to their god for salvation and hope.

H.G. Wells' vision of a Heat Ray predated lasers and atomic weapons. The Heat Ray vaporizes people, and the movie makes it obvious that there is a connection between atomic weapons and the Heat Ray. The Heat ray is described as an electromagnetic radiation pulse, with watches magnetized and power shut down. This was very close to what might be expected from a neutron bomb.

At first, the movie shows scientists trying to understand and defeat the Martians. There is speculation that the Martians hearts beat slower, that gravity would weigh them down, and that they possibly have more than one brain. The Pacific Institute (Cal Tech) uses science to try and understand the Martians through analysis (blood samples, optics of mechanical eye) but fail to find any weaknesses. Their efforts go for nought in the panic and frenzy that follows the wholesale destruction of the cities. There is the juxtaposition of the scientists, beaten, defeated, without their equipment, who give up the fight and find themselves in the midst of those praying for salvation.The movie attempts to show us that science is not the answer to our problems, but rather the cause of many of the world's ills.

Yet it is microbes that kill the Martians - not religion. It is almost as if the movie wants to say it is a miracle, yet it comes down to H.G. Wells' vision of simple biology defeating the Martians. It was exactly this kind of fear of infection from alien microbes that led to the quarantine of the astronaut crews that came back from the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Now that evidence is mounting that microbes may exist on Mars, further precautions against infection will almost be a certainty if and when a human crew makes the round trip to Mars.

Some comments regarding the technology visions: force fields - an electromagnetic covering is shown (the heat rays were able to go through the force fields) is still part of science fiction lore. Whether or not there will ever be any validity to the assumption is unknown at this time. H.G. Wells also uses the electromagnetic forces for the support of the Martian machines - on 3 magnetic legs.

The whole idea of Martians or an alien race coming to Earth is pretty fantastic. This is probably the biggest technological question asked in the entire movie. Very few scientists today think that this event is ever likely to happen.

An odd juxtaposition of 1950's and 1890's vision of the technology of spacecraft collided in the movie. In 1953, the military uses atomic weapons, the Martians have their Heat Ray, yet the filmakers stayed with Wells' story of primitive spacecraft coming in and crash landing as low flying meteors. It was also fun to see that the filmakers took the story line of everything about the Martians being in threes (landing, legs on the spacecraft, and their eyes) and used a TV-like eye (RGB) to depict the Martian sensor and their eyes. Color TV had only recently been invented, and the filmakers used the red, green, blue spectrum as the Martian way of seeing the world.

In an interesting side note, the heroine of the movie received her Masters in Library Sciences from USC, yet is serving coffee and donuts to the men. The movie tended to be sexist and filled with typical 50's dialogue. Also, many of the actions and assumptions made by the characters about the Martians were very human-centric. "They'll move at dawn" was one comment. Yet, if Martians eyes are better adapted to lower light, shouldn't they move during the night? Waving a white flag and saying "everyone knows that waving a white flag means you're friendly" just moments before being vaporized was a light touch of humor (though it was meant to be suspenseful and terrible in 1953).

It was not so long ago that people would believe a story like War of the Worlds. The War of the Worlds was also used by Orson Welles and his Mercury players when the Mercury Theater radio broadcast of October 30, 1938 (the day before Halloween) portrayed the Martian invasion as a simulated news broadcast. Thousands of listeners did not realize the announcement of a Martian invasion in New Jersey was a simulation and were panic-stricken, calling the police and running into the streets. Either our innocence has faded, or we have become more informed as to the possibilities (none and none) of an invasion of an alien race from outer space.