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‘War of the Worlds’ screening

By Frances-Catherine Quevenco, on 18 October 2011

On 3 October, at 6:30pm in the Darwin building of UCL, film enthusiasts, science historians, historians, scientists and a collection of many others gathered to watch the screening of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953).

It is an invasion film based on the popular novel written by H.G. Wells. In fact, it was apparently one of the earliest adaptations of the novel and actually won an Oscar for its special effects. That unfortunately did not stop some of the audience snickering at the killer laser beam attacks of the aliens, nor did it stop fans of the Wells novel criticising the film for making the alien machines hover rather than move in a tripod-like fashion in the novel. This was one of the many fun facts that Dr Joe Cain, Head of UCL Science and Technology Studies and Senior Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Biology, shared with the audience before the movie.

The plot revolves around a meteor crash in California in the 1950s. The main character, Dr Clayton Forrester, is a famous scientist who is put in charge of investigating the meteor site. However, the meteor is too hot and radiation is too high to do any detailed analysis. While Dr Forrester waits for the meteor to cool down so he can conduct a thorough examination, an alien snake-like robot emerges from the meteor and chaos ensues.

The alien machines destroy everything in their path and even the most advanced weapons of the military are of no use. It is therefore up to Dr Forrester to find a way to save the day and his damsel in distress, Sylvia Van Buren. In spite of the lack of CGI (unlike the 2005 remake), the abysmal acting and the clichéd dialogue, the laughter and little comments shared by the audience showed that the movie was nevertheless appreciated.

Going back to Dr Cain’s introduction to the film, after a brief synopsis he delved into a bit of film theory. Later he told me that he felt it was a shame that film analysis seemed to only focus on technical things, especially when the actual content has so much to say. The War of the Worlds is a particularly good example of this. Before hitting the ‘play’ button, Dr Cain asked us to look out for several things – one being the role of the scientist in the movie.

Considering that the film was made amidst the ‘Cold War frenzy’ made the way science was portrayed all the more interesting. Non-scientists appeared confused and at times useless, turning to Dr Forrester for even the most obvious answers. What is this portrayal meant to convey? Our heads whirring with ideas, the audience congregated in the Grant Museum to admire the collections and discuss what we thought about the film.

All in all I thought this film screening was a thought-provoking and exciting way of approaching the history of science and technology. For those interested in learning more, I recommend you watch the film or google ‘Orson Welles War of the Worlds’ for the radio programme. I also highly encourage others to attend these film nights. It’s not just about popcorn and fun, but educational and fascination as well.

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