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In the novel
Within the context of the novel, the term "Heat-Ray" is more commonly applied to the destructive energy it projects and not the weapon itself. The weapon that fires the Heat-Ray is described as a box-like or camera-like case that generates the Heat-Ray. This weapon is carried by one of the metallic arms of the Martians' Tripod fighting-machines. In the case of the cylinder, however, the Heat-Ray has a different generator. A tall rod with a spinning circular disk at the top was seen, followed by three puffs of green smoke, then a dome-like object would pop out and fire the Heat-Ray (seen as a flash of light). The cylinder's heat-ray was used in conjunction with a sort of searchlight to kill anyone attempting to investigate the Martian activity. It is also speculated that there is some sort of material used in its production.
The Heat-Ray is essentially a directed-energy weapon that incinerates anything it comes into contact with. It instantly sets ablaze flesh, vegetation and anything else flammable. When the Heat-Ray hits water, it almost instantly turns it into steam. It is also capable of melting metal.
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 while the Heat-Ray is fired. It was described with considerable range, striking targets at distances of at least two miles.
In other adaptations
The Heat-Ray is one of the most common features of virtually every adaptation of the story. Many adaptations adhere fairly well to the characteristics given in the novel, such as the radio adaptation, even reciting near verbatim descriptions of how the device operates.
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. The Heat-Ray emanates from a proboscis in the cupola rather than shooting from a box or case carried by the tripod.
In the spoof film Scary Movie 4, the main storyline is that of War of the Worlds. 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 Heat-Ray on top of their machines which fire red sparks, and two disintegrator rays at the side, which are shown as green energy 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. Both types of the Heat-Ray have a less violent effect on its target as most of what they would hit would begin to glow and then vanish, sometimes leaving a stain or pile of ash as a remainder; 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, often, the Heat-Ray does have a simple destructive effect on certain objects; 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, an ironic nod to how the Heat-Ray is explained to have worked in the novel and radio play.
The series also offered perhaps the most distinctive take on the established weapon, not employed by a war machine, but rather 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 it is based on. 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 that appear to have a desiccating effect on living objects, such as animals, and a 'disruptive' effect on other objects. For example, when humans are hit by the ray, they are disintegrated into a cloud of gray powder (possibly ash), while their clothes remain somehow unaffected. However, 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 when hit by the Heat-Ray. Later in the movie, a video of 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 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 a human, they are instantly burned right down to the bone. The ray can also be used to destroy buildings. The ray is never described in any detail due to the nature of the film. 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. However, the effects of this weapon are largely unknown, as the ray itself is used very infrequently through the film. 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 atop the hood of the machine (not one of the many visible arms they use to take humans). Three metallic fingers hold a type of disc that spins rapidly, generating the Heat-Ray and when it touches flesh their body begins to have an orange flame until it turns green turning the victim to nothing other than bones. This film version of the Heat-Ray is the closest in similarity to that of the novel.