War of the Worlds, The / When Worlds Collide: A George Pal Double Feature (4K UHD & Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Sep 26, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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War of the Worlds, The / When Worlds Collide: A George Pal Double Feature (4K UHD & Blu-ray Review)

Director

Byron Haskin, Rudolph Maté

Release Date(s)

1953, 1951 (September 27, 2022)

Studio(s)

Paramount Pictures (Paramount Home Entertainment – Paramount Presents #35)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: C
  • Overall Grade: B-

The War of the Worlds / When Worlds Collide: A George Pal Double Feature (4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

The War of the Worlds (1953) (4K Ultra HD)

When a meteor crash lands near a small California town one evening, the local residents have no idea that it’s actually the opening shot in a full-scale Martian invasion of Earth. But when the meteor opens to reveal a manta-like “war machine” that hovers in the air and decimates nearby objects with a powerful heat ray, the military quickly leaps into action. The brilliant scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) leads an all-out effort to stop this Martian threat, which has begun to appear all over the planet. But before long, it becomes abundantly clear that no technology invented by Humanity can stop the alien menace. Ann Robinson also stars as the daughter of the town’s preacher (and requisite love interest for Forrester).

Based loosely upon the classic 1898 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, the fact that director Byron Haskin’s 1953 film adaptation exists at all is largely a result of the project having been championed by legendary film producer George Pal. Updated with an American Cold War setting, the film’s invasion theme—coupled with its emphasis on “super science” to save the day—was a perfect fit for the tastes of audiences at the time. Red Scare/McCarthy paranoia, flying saucers, and atomic weapons—these things were regular topics of discussion in American newspapers during this period. Matched with its vivid three-strip Technicolor production and iconic special effects, The War of the Worlds became a critical and box office success upon its release, and eventually an all-time classic of 1950s science fiction filmmaking, ranking alongside The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956) as a landmark of the genre.

The War of the Worlds was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by cinematographer George Barnes in the aforementioned three-strip Technicolor format (using specially-designed Technicolor cameras with spherical lenses—you’ll find more details on this process here via the George Eastman Museum) and it was finished photochemically at the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Paramount commissioned a full 4K scan of the original three-strip Technicolor negative in 2018, followed by digital restoration and color grading for the film’s Digital and physical Ultra HD release (note that both Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10 are available options on the disc). For the most part, the resulting image is gorgeous. Fine texturing is lovely, with a significant increase in detail over past DVD editions (and a more modest boost from the recent Criterion and Imprint Blu-ray editions as well). You can see this early on in the crisp pattern of Robinson’s jacket as she watches the meteor crash (while standing with a crowd in front of a movie theater—you can even read the “Snowflake Popcorn” label on the snack box right behind her). Film grain is present and organic looking (though there is some question as to whether any grain should be visible at all, given the fact that the process of producing release prints from three-strip Technicolor tended to eliminate it). Note that the wires holding up the Martian war machine miniatures have been digitally removed—they’re no longer visible at all (and were never intended to be). Contrast is excellent, with deep blacks.

But there is one issue here and it’s significant: For some inexplicable reason, in the process of color grading the film, the opening image of Mars (as painted by artist Chesley Bonestell) was left with too strong a bluish cast—it should be red with just a touch of blue. And frankly, that’s astonishing. Mars is known as the “Red Planet” after all. The whole point of having Bonestell paint Mars for the film was that he was known for his astronomical accuracy, having worked regularly with NASA. Lifelong fans of The War of the Worlds will certainly know that the blue cast is wrong. Paramount’s previous DVD graded the color correctly. The Criterion Collection, when they released their Blu-ray version of the film in 2020, graded it correctly too. But when confronted with their error here, Paramount issued this official response:

“We sincerely appreciate fans’ passion for War of the Worlds and their attention to detail. The scene that has been referenced as being more blue than red was taken from the original three-strip Technicolor negative. Paramount chose not to employ additional color correction, but instead consulted original IB Technicolor prints and matched the look from there.”

That’s simply nonsense—obviously, the studio doesn’t want to incur the cost of correcting the color and re-issuing the disc. The way you know it’s nonsense is that the planet appears the proper color in the original theatrical trailer included on the 4K disc! At least the rest of the film’s coloring appears to be correct. Nevertheless, the 4K video grade for this release has been knocked down accordingly. (It would have earned an A- otherwise.)

[Editor’s Update 9/29/22: Interestingly, I found this comment on Facebook from former ILM animator, VFX supervisor and film producer Peter Kuran, responding to Paramount’s statement: “The reason it would be blue would be theatrical IB tech prints are balanced for a carbon arc light source which is very yellow. Better to use a 16mm IB Tech print which is balanced for 3200-3500 more normal.” That seems a reasonable conclusion to me. –BH]

Audio-wise, Paramount’s 4K release includes the film’s English soundtrack in remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Unfortunately, there is no English mono mix, which would preserve the original theatrical monaural sound experience (another disappointment, as both the Criterion and Imprint Blu-rays do include English mono). Note that while the film’s sound was originally recorded using Western Electric’s then-new Multi-track Magnetic Stereophonic Sound System in “three-track stereo,” only a small handful of theaters were able to exhibit the film that way at the time. What’s more, it’s believed that those original audio elements no longer survive. But the new 5.1 mix is absolutely fantastic. It was created in 2018 at Skywalker Sound by Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt specifically for the restoration. The 5.1 mix retains much of the 2.0 track’s sonic flavor, while widening the front soundstage a bit and adding a fuller and more robust tone (with a bit more bass as well). The rear channels are used for a nifty bit of atmosphere and some light panning and directional effects (blowing wind, the sound of the fireball passing overhead, the war machine’s “lid” unscrewing, heat ray and weapons fire, etc). It’s quite a fun mix—I actually almost prefer it to the mono. (Heresy, I know.) Dolby Digital mono mixes are included in German and French only, and there are optional subtitles available in English, English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, German, Spanish, Latin Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, and Dutch.

There is no Blu-ray version of the film included in this package, however the 4K disc includes the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson
  • Audio Commentary with Joe Dante, Bob Burns, and Bill Warren
  • The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds (SD – 29:59)
  • H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction (SD – 10:29)
  • The Mercury Theater on the Air Presets: The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast from 1938 (HD – 59:30)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:20)

All of this content is carried over from Paramount’s 2005 Special Collector’s Edition DVD release of the film. The original Mercury Theater on the Air Presets radio broadcast is a treat if you’ve never heard it before. The featurettes are short but offer quite good content. The Sky is Falling retrospective features interviews with much of the talent from the commentaries, plus additional artisans who worked on the film (and were alive at the time). Meanwhile, The Father of Science Fiction offers some nice history on H.G. Wells himself. My favorite of these extras by far is the “famous fan” commentary with director Joe Dante, our dear friend (and the keeper of Hollywood’s attic) Bob Burns, and film historian Bill Warren. It’s a fun track and genuinely informative. Note that a 4K Digital copy code for the film is also included.

The War of the Worlds (Film/Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/B-/B

 

When Worlds Collide (1951) (Blu-ray Disc)

When a South African astronomer discovers that a rogue star and its attendant planet, Zyra, are on a collision course with Earth, he hires a pilot named David Randall (Richard Derr) to deliver the photographic evidence to Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) at the Cosmos Observatory in New York. Randall complies, is met at the airport by Hendron’s daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), and soon learns to his dismay that the end of the world is only eight months away. Hendron attempts to convince the United Nations to build large rocketships called “Arks” to save a sampling of Humanity, as Zyra proves to be capable of supporting life. But when the world’s leaders decline in disbelief, a wealthy but wheelchair-bound industrialist named Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt) agrees to fund the effort instead. So as the end steadily approaches (and Randall and Joyce slowly fall in love), a team of scientists and engineers works around the clock to complete the Ark, knowing full well that there aren’t enough seats aboard for all of them to make the journey.

Directed by Rudolph Maté (D.O.A., Union Station, The 300 Spartans), When Worlds Collide is another classic George Pal production from the 1960s, this one based on a 1933 science fiction novel of the same name by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Once again, the legendary astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell was hired to consult and create artwork for the film, though in this case not all of the art that appears here was produced by him. Like The War of the Worlds, the film’s “doomsday” plot draws perfectly upon the Cold War/atomic war paranoia of the day. The film’s model work and visual effects are spectacular too, earning Gordon Jennings and his team a then-rare Special Effects Oscar at the 1952 Academy Awards. (They would receive another for The War of the Worlds two years later.)

When Worlds Collide was also shot on 35 mm photochemical film—in this case by John F. Seitz and W. Howard Greene—using the three-strip Technicolor process, and it was finished photochemically at the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. It appears that a recent (or existing) 2K scan of the three-strip negative was used for this new Blu-ray release, with the image having been given substantial digital restoration. The result is certainly a significant improvement upon the 2001 DVD release in terms of resolution, color, and contrast. Grain is light to medium, but organic. The image is largely free of pops, nicks, dust, and scratches. But while the texturing is pleasing, overall detail is a little soft, and the contrast is a bit lacking too. Strangely, there’s also an odd brownish cast to the image. Compared to the all-region Imprint Films Blu-ray release from 2020, the digital remastering and clean-up quality is much improved here, but the contrast is bolder on the Imprint disc and its coloring appears more natural—whiter whites, blacker blacks, more accurate skin tones, etc. It’s really a case of six-of-one, a half-dozen of the other. But some fans of the film may prefer the Imprint disc for that reason.

[Editor’s Note: I’m told that Paramount is looking into the color issue on this disc to see if they agree that there’s an error. Whatever official statement they make will be added here. My guess they won’t find anything wrong with it.]

Audio-wise, Paramount’s Blu-ray includes the original English mono in DTS-HD Master Audio format, along with German, Latin Spanish, and French mono in Dolby Digital format. The English mix is unremarkable given its vintage, but the dialogue is clean and the track appears to be largely free of sonic defects. It also seems faithful to the theatrical experience. Optional subtitles are included in English, English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, German, Latin Spanish, French, and Japanese.

When Worlds Collide is only offered on Blu-ray Disc in this package but the disc contains a single special feature:

  • Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:00)

You do at least get a Digital copy code for this film (in HD) as well on a paper insert.

When Worlds Collide (Film/Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/B/D

 

SUMMARY

The War of the Worlds’ arrival on 4K Ultra HD has been far too long in coming, especially when you consider that the Digital 4K version has been available for about two years now. And frankly, it’s just nice to see When Worlds Collide on Blu-ray Disc at all. But I must say, as a lifelong fan of both of these films, I expected better from Paramount Home Entertainment in terms of the color grading on each—particularly when you consider that this is the latest entry in their marquee Paramount Presents line. For casual fans, this two-disc set might serve just fine. Serious cinephiles, however, may wish to consider the recent Criterion Blu-ray of The War of the Worlds (which presents Mars in the correct color and adds some additional custom extras), while some may also find the Imprint Films Blu-ray of When Worlds Collide to have more pleasing color (though again, that’s more of a wash). Unfortunately, given the issues here, I find that I can’t quite recommend this release to our readers (at least at full price). So caveat emptor as they say. Proceed with caution.

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

 

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