The updated moral of the story may be remember to get your vaccination shots, but this film, a welcome re-discovery on the 101 Sci-Fi Movies list is always an enjoyable watch.
Based on the immortal tale by H.G. Wells, the story is updated, and lifted from England, and placed on the Pacific coast of the United States. With a narration and stock footage added to it, the film, produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, feels almost like a documentary as opposed to a sci-fi thriller.
Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and some of his scientist pals from Pacific Tech are on a fishing trip, when they are summoned to an usual meteorite crash site. Unable to get too close, they decide to let it cool off for 24 hours, and wait in the local town. It also allows Forrester to find a little bit of romance with local gal, Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson).
The invaders , however, aren’t worried about the locals and their square dance, and move right on to the always creepy ‘cylinder unscrewing scene”. This moment is always unnerving, it works in this film, in the original book, the Orson Welles radio drama, as well as the Jeff Wayne concept album (something I really enjoy).
It gives us the reveal of the Martian tech, with the snakelike stalk rising out of the crater/cylinder, it also gives us one of the most recognizable sounds in movie history, alongside the Wilhelm scream, the motorized rattle-snake sound of the ships.
These ships, promptly wipe out the three awestruck deputies left to guard the site, and get ready to continue their assault on the country, even as other infested meteorites tumble to the earth.
Forrester, accompanied by the local constabulary and military return to the site, to find this destruction, and promptly call in reinforcements.
As the full force of the military arrives, they begin to draw their lines in the sand, and get ready to kick these creatures off the planet.
However, they and we, quickly learn that it won’t be that easy, as the manta-shaped craft lift themselves out of the crater and begin their assault, not only on the planet, but on pop culture consciousness. These ships are so indelibly burned into our consciousness now, these were the first invaders however, that weren’t piloting flying saucers.
Their tech is pretty sweet, the ships, the stalks, the protective blister, the tentacle eye – it’s a bit of a letdown when you actually see one of the aliens. They are these low, stumpy things, with their three lens eye, and long whiplike arms. Not quite as impressive as the craft they’re using, but maybe that’s why we only see them briefly.
This, alongside The Day The Earth Stood Still are probably my favorite science fiction films from the 1950s (although I do love The Thing From Another World). I like that it shows that yes, we may be rather advanced to our way of thinking, but what if something came along that made all of our tech just downright useless, or even pointless? I’m sure a lot of our petty squabbles would be put away and forgotten pretty quick, assuming they showed up and had gotten their vaccination shots this time.
The model work is apparent, but it doesn’t really take you out of the film, it actually makes me appreciate it all the more, the attention to detail that is given invites you into the world as opposed to ousting you from it. The use of stock footage gives the film an epic scale, though it clocks in at just under 90 minutes.
I think it works, because it establishes our characters first, and it doesn’t put them in a big city, it sets them up in a small town, where everyone knows one another, and there’s a real sense of community, a microcosm of the world, and that little town is practically erased from existence. It’s a little scary.
And it works to this day. Yes, I like the Spielberg version, but this version for me, will always be the definitive one.
What’s your favorite version of this tale?