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My Favorite Martians: Martians!!!

August 31st, 2009

“Yet across the gulf of space…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

— H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

As much as I would love to see a proper, Victorian-era film version of The War of the Worlds, I understand why the story is usually updated to modern times*. End-of-civilization stories are all the more powerful when they’re happening in a familiar world. Besides, Wells wasn’t writing a period piece.

On the other hand, some relatively recent adaptations–notably the late ’80s TV series and the 2005 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise collaboration–make a second change that I find unnecessary and even self-defeating. In deference to modern knowledge about the Red Planet, they claim that the Martians aren’t from Mars after all.

Mars holds a special fascination for us. It’s red, the color of (human) blood. It’s named for a god of war. And even if you set aside thousands of years of myths, lore, hoaxes and other fictional accounts, the most important thing about Mars is that it’s the next planet over.

So, while I thought the Spielberg film–which retained both the tripod war machines and the first-person narrative of the novel–was pretty terrific, it loses big points by removing Mars from the scenario.

And that brings me to the 1953 version produced by George Pál. He moved the story to then-contemporary California, but at least his Martians remained Martians.

In Wells’ novel, the invaders are large, blobbish things with the requisite number of tentacles, but Pál’s creatures are bipedal whozits with three-fingered hands and three-lobed eyes. (The script plays up the Martians’ predilection for the number three.) Given the release date of the film, I doubt it’s a coincidence that their eyes evoke early color television camera optics.

"Hello my honey, hello my baby, hello my ragtime doll..."

George Pál‘s early film work involved a lot of stop-motion animation, yet he ultimately chose not to recreate the walking tripods of the novel. Instead, the war machines are striking, copper-colored manta rays topped with cobra-bodied heat ray projectors. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they’re not flying saucers; they’re actually suspended by invisible, force field “legs.” There are a couple of shots where one can see shimmering beams holding them aloft, and the ground beneath them occasionally sparks where the “legs” contact it.

The visual effects are spectacular, but what really sells the ’53 War of the Worlds are the sounds.  The heat rays make an ominous thrum-thrum-THRUM noise until they erupt in a terrifying, electronic shriek. My favorite scene in the film is when the heroine’s uncle, a priest, attempts to confront the aliens with the word of God. As the hovering Martian machine lowers toward him, the sound intensifies: thrum-thrum-thrum-thrum-thrumTHRUM SKREEEEE-EEEE-EEEE!

It’s a bad day for the clergy, but God eventually gets his due. Pál adds a religious undertone to the familiar tale, and it’s telling that the Martians finally succumb to Earth’s bacteria just as they are about to demolish the church in which the main characters have chosen to wait out the end of the world.

Me, I’ve long thought that the war in The War of the Worlds isn’t between humans and Martians, or Martians and God, but between the two planets themselves. When humanity proves inadequate to the task, the Earth sends its smallest soldiers to defend itself.

* One of two low-budget War of the Worlds movies released in 2005 to cash-in on the Steven Spielberg epic was unique in that it retained the Victorian setting. However, it was by all accounts terrible.

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