Loosely adapted from the original 1897 novel, it attempts to recast the story in a then-modern form, relocating the action from Victorian Era England to Southern California in 1953, while also being a commentary on the then-ongoing Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Earth is suddenly and unexpectedly invaded by Martians and American scientist Doctor Clayton Forrester (no, not not that one) searches for anything that can stop them. Forrester is on hand when an object crashes near the town of Linda Rosa; at the site, he meets Sylvia Van Buren and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins. All three are on hand when the object opens and the creatures inside attack. As reports of similar landings and attacks pour in from around the world, the military surrounds the Martians. Pastor Collins attempts a peaceful First Contact with the Martians, but they kill him and then wipe out the military force.
Forrester and Sylvia escape, making their way back to Forrester's team at Pacific Tech with samples of both Martian tech and Martian blood while around the world various capitol cities are being destroyed. Closer to home, the US government attempts to destroy a Martian bivouac with a nuclear bomb. It fails due to the Martians' force fields, and Forrester can only hope he and his team can find a biological weapon that can stop them. Before they can get very far, though, the Martian advance towards Los Angeles forces an evacuation of the city; Sylvia, Forrester and his team are separated, and their equipment is stolen or destroyed.
As the Martians wreak havoc upon L.A., Forrester desperately searches for Sylvia. He finds her in a church, moments ahead of the Martians; as they huddle together awaiting death, the attack abruptly stops and the Martian war machines crash into the ground. Investigating, Forrester finds the pilot of one machine has died, and deduces the cause -- earthly bacteria. Around the world, the Martians die from diseases to which they had no immunity.
The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects (although, to be fair, it was the only nominee that year) and a Hugo Award. In 2011, it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. It is generally considered one of the best Science Fiction movies of the 1950s, and still receives high acclaim from critics; Rotten Tomatoes gives the film has an 85% rating.
- Cool Plane: The movie features Stock Footage of the cancelled YB-49 bomber. If the "flying wing" design reminds you of something, you're right. The basic principle was re-used for the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber.
- Earth Is a Battlefield
- Extremely Short Timespan: While the original novel took place over the course of several weeks to several months, this film collapses all the action from landing to defeat into about three days.
- Fictional Counterpart: Pacific Tech, to Cal Tech. See Shout-Out below.
- Force Fields: Added to the Martian technology to keep them invulnerable to human weapons.
- Ghost City: Los Angeles.
- Godzilla Threshold: The Martians pretty much start here.
- Nuclear Option: With the Martians curbstomping everything else thrown at them, the US government elects to try a nuke.
- Oh Crap: Just as our heroes are coming to terms with the power of the war machine that's about to emerge from the cylinder, they look up and see the second cylinder flashing across the sky.
- Shout-Out: Woody Woodpecker can be seen in a tree top, center screen, when the first large Martian meteorite-ship crashes through the sky near the beginning of the film. Woody's creator Walter Lantz and George Pal were close friends, and Pal tried to include Woody in every one of his works as both a tribute to his friend and as something of a good luck charm.
- Stripped to the Bone: The fate of the Heat Ray victims.
- The Theme Park Version: In the novel, humans manage a few isolated successes against individual Martian tripods, and there are mentions of damaged tripods. By the 1938 radio play, we are explicitly told that the Martians lose only one machine. By this film, the war machines are totally indestructible, and even an atomic bomb fails to put so much as a scratch on them. Arguably this is an unavoidable part of technology lag - the main problem the humans had in the book was hitting the fast-moving Martian machines directly with conventional artillery (as well as a lack of defense against chemical weapons), and modern weapons are both more powerful and more accurate. If later adaptions didn't "cheat" on behalf of the Martians by making them Immune to Bullets, the Curb Stomp Battle would be in the other direction.
- Unintentional Period Piece: Perhaps more so than most other works so described. It was a deliberate attempt to update the original 1897 novel into what was then a "modern" setting with contemporary concerns, technologies and characterizations. In the early 21st century, though, it comes across as visibly dated, sometimes amusingly so.
- You Could Have Used Your Powers for Good: The understanding of science and advancement of technology necessary to create the war machines' force fields and skeleton beams is hundreds, if not thousands of years ahead of human understanding. With that at their beck and call, certainly the Martians could have come up with a better solution to their climate change problem than invading Earth.
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