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In the novel
The Heat-Ray is essentially a directed-energy weapon, albeit that the name of "Heat-Ray" is more commonly applied to the destructive energy it projects than to the weapon itself; the latter described as a box-like or camera-like case mounted on larger machines, including Tripod fighting-machines, whereas the Ray was credited with striking targets at distances of at least two miles.
The novel explains:
"in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light... it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.
The only visible element of the ray was a flash emitted from the chamber, in which respect Wells' description is consistent with experimental directed-energy weapons of later years (such as a powerful CO2 Laser).
In other adaptations
The Heat-Ray is a feature of virtually every adaptation of the story. Many adaptations adhere to the characteristics given in the novel, such as the 1938 CBS radio adaptation; even reciting near-verbatim descriptions.
The Heat-Ray is described in Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds and depicted on the album artwork painted by Michael Trim as well as the art "Panic in the Streets" by Geoff Taylor, wherein it emanates from a proboscis in the cupola of the tripod.
In the spoof film Scary Movie 4, the Heat-Ray's effects are given a comical treatment; the intersection scene shows a lady push another into the path of the Heat-Ray to get her clothes. In one scene, the President of the United States, played by Leslie Nielsen, announces to the United Nations that America has managed to capture a Heat-Ray. Its effects have been reversed, comically destroying the clothes of everyone in the room, with the President barely aware.
For the 1953 film version, the Martians use a combination of three rays: one on top of their machines, which fire red sparks, and two disintegrator rays at the side, which are shown as green bolts. These two can only be pointed in the direction the ship is facing, while the one at the top can be pointed in any direction. Most of their targets would glow and vanish, sometimes leaving a stain or pile of ash; the Heat-Ray differs from the disintegrators (also called "skeleton beam") as the former sets the surrounding environment ablaze as well as vaporizing the target within a few seconds. Although the Heat-Ray does have a simple destructive effect on certain objects, at other times, the ray would set objects ablaze or cause them to explode (as shown when the machines reach Los Angeles). In one scene, General Mann states that it is likely the Martians generate radiation without using heavy screening to power their rays. The book's Black smoke is replaced by the "skeleton beam". Doctor Clayton Forrester explained how these skeleton beams worked as such:
It neutralizes mesons somehow. They're the atomic glue holding matter together. Cut across their lines of magnetic force and any object will simply cease to exist.
As a sequel to the 1953 film, the Heat-Ray's use in the War of the Worlds TV series is rather notable. Aside from their employment in the first episode (its destruction replayed in the opening credit sequence in subsequent episodes of the season), the main Heat-Ray is put to more attention in an episode in which the aliens are unable to unearth a buried warship from a recon mission and are forced to remove the gooseneck device from the ship and strap it atop a hearse. The aliens' mission in this episode is put to end when the Heat-Ray hits them after being reflected off a makeshift parabolic mirror.
The series also offered a Heat-Ray not employed by a war machine, but as a personal weapon. "The Second Seal" episode deals with the discovery of archives that contain remnants of the 1953 invasion. Among the material found is a boomerang-shaped weapon that fires Heat-Rays. These rays are the kind of green blobs fired from the tips of their warships, and are similarly shot from the ends of the object.
The Heat-Rays featured in the series mirror the same power of the film. This includes the variation between their ability to visibly destroy something as well as simply making a target disappear. Although the word "Heat-Ray" is never applied in the series as it is in the 1953 or updated 2005 film, the term used in one episode is "Death-Ray".
In Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds adaptation of Wells' novel, the Heat-Ray is portrayed as two bluish-white rays having a desiccating effect on living objects, such as animals, and a 'disruptive' effect on other objects; but a bridge in one scene is thrown from its pylons when hit by the ray, as if physically struck, and in an earlier scene, brick-and-wood buildings are either destroyed or catch fire. Later in the movie, an army of tripods destroying a city is shown, with Heat-Rays collapsing targeted buildings in a similar fashion to the destruction of the bridge. Curiously, human clothing does not seem to be affected by the Heat-Rays, which is used to effect in one of the film's scenes when the clothes of slaughtered humans are floating along a river.
The Asylum films
In The Asylum's 2005 film H.G Wells' War of the Worlds (also entitled Invasion), the Heat-Ray is seen as a bluish-green light and is built inside the "walkers", which are not tripods, but six-legged machines resembling crabs. The ray fires from the walker's single "eye". When the ray hits humans, they are instantly burned to the bone. The ray can also be used to destroy buildings. A character named Pvt. Kerry Williams compares the ray's effect on a human to a fly zapper's effect on a fly.
In the film's sequel, War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave, a kind of Heat-ray can be seen firing from the 'squid-walkers', a living race of flying cybernetic tripods; but the effects of this weapon are largely unknown, as the ray itself is used infrequently. It is most notably used to devastate London and Paris. Another kind of ray is also attached to the machines, but it is made to transport living humans into the mothership.
Pendragon Pictures film
In the lesser-known 2005 film adaptation from Pendragon Pictures, H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, the generator is held by a small arm that extends from the hood of the machine (not one of the many visible arms they use to take humans). Three metallic fingers hold a disc that spins rapidly, generating the Heat-Ray; and when it touches flesh, the victim is reduced to bones.
There are Heat-Rays used by both humans and martians in this film, wherein human Heat-Rays are a reddish-orange color and the Martian Heat-Rays light green.