The War of the Worlds

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(8/10) In a nutshell: With his third try at a science fiction epic, producer George Pal finally ironed out some of the kinks that made his first two attempts fall below the mark. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic is a stunning tour de force of special effects, aided by a fast-paced script and beautiful design. The breezy plot helps to partly cover up that Pal has stripped Wells’ story of all ideology and satire, and reversed the author’s position on key issues, and Pal’s insistence on drowning his movies in schmarmy religious tirades makes for a cringe-worthy ending. Despite this, The War of the Worlds is a brilliantly entertaining nail-biter and visually a true masterpiece.

The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, William Phipps, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 85%. IMDb score: 7.2/10

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki.

The iconic war machines of The War of the Worlds, designed by Albert Nozaki. Look closely and you see the wires.

There are a few films that stand towering over science fiction like giants in respect to their influence on the genre. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), and Woman in the Moon (1929, review), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931, review), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and the Wachowksi Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) are among these. They are not always the best in their subgenre and some of them are hampered by by serious problems. They are not always first in their field with their ideas, but execute them in ways that make them milestones to which you can pin flags and draw a line: this was science fiction film history before this-and-this film, and this is what it looks like afterwards. George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is one of these films, it is the Magnum Opus of a filmmaker that wasn’t always savvy to what made a good sci-fi script, but without question one of the great visionaries of movie history. Continue reading

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When Worlds Collide

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Producer George Pal returns with his second sci-fi epic in 1951, still worried about nuclear war. A crack team of scientists and entrepreneurs are mocked by the world as they prepare for doomsday as an approaching rogue sun threatens to turn the world into dust. A modern retelling of Noah’s Ark by way of rocketship, this early Hollywood space travel film stumbles on an illogical and stilted script, weak characterisations and a failure to bring the movie to a satisfying philosophical or moral conclusion. Heavy on religious imagery, but since the source novel is a retelling of a biblical story, this can be excused. A fun apocalyptic adventure, but don’t expect much depth.

When Worlds Collide. Directed by Rupolph Maté. Written Sydney Boehm. Based on a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Starring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 77 %. IMDb score: 6.7

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Noah’s Ark anno 1951, heavily influenced by the rocketship i George Pal’s previous film Destination Moon.

1951 was a special year for science fiction: it produced three of the major classics of the fifties’ sci-fi films. The Thing from Another World came out in May, The Day the Earth Stood Still (review)was released in September and When Worlds Collide got its premiere in November. The first two dealt with aliens, one hostile, the other benign. But producer George Pal wouldn’t touch that subject until 1953. Instead he continued where he left off in 1950 with the first American moon landing film. In When Worlds Collide he takes us to a different planet. And if you think the title is a witty metaphor for two different world views or social classes colliding in the movie, you should’t expect such subtlety from the Michael Bay of the fifties. No, when George Pal says two worlds are going to collide, he is being literal. Continue reading

Destination Moon

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The first real serious big-budget science fiction film made in the United States by the father of the fifties’ sci-fi craze, George Pal, was released in 1950. Not only sci-fi fans, but NASA, can thank this movie for boosting a national interest in outer space and for convincing many that a moon flight might actually be possible. Audiences were wowed by the vivid Technicolor photography of the moon and outer space and, disregarding blunders like the nuclear powered rocket, the science is solid. Unfortunately as a drama this is just about as exciting as reading the phone book.

Destination Moon (1950). Directed by Irving Pichel. Written by Alford Van Ronkel, Robert A. Heinlein, James O’Hanlon. Starring: John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson. Produced by George Pal for George Pal Productions. Tomatometer: 60 %. IMDb score: 6.4

Taking a space walk on Destination Moon.

Taking a space walk on Destination Moon.

This is one of those films where you sort of have to tread a bit carefully when reviewing: it is considered by many to be one of the most important films in science fiction, however it influenced the industry and the audience more than it did the actual films that followed in its wake. Key players in the foundation of NASA cite the film as an inspiration, and it opened the door for science fiction, which had up until then been assigned to cheap kiddie serials and B horror movies, into the big league in Hollywood. But although it is admired by many, it is loved by few. Continue reading