H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (AKA Invasion, 2005)
This is certainly the 2nd best War of the Worlds movie of 2005, but that may be
damning it with very faint praise. The Pendragon version was a huge disappointment,
while the Steven Spielberg film is simply one of the best (if not the best) alien
invasion films ever made. So this War of the Worlds film (it was called Invasion in
the UK due to copyright reasons) is pretty much stuck uncomfortably between a rock and a hard place.
At first glance, it looks like this straight to video production has all the
hallmarks of a blatant rip off. But is this really just a hurried and cynical film
made to ride on the coat tails of other peoples marketing budgets? The answer is a
guarded no. It's hard to deny the serendipity of the release (to coincide with the
Spielberg film), and the production company behind this movie (called the The Asylum)
definitely fit the bill of a B-movie outfit with a pile em high, shoot em cheap
philosophy. As exhibit A, they have made some gloriously titled productions. How
about "Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter's Cove", or "Death Valley: The Revenge of
Bloody Bill" and my personal favourite, Max Knight: Ultra Spy. (What does it mean
when a movie company uses the colon sign in so many of their movie titles?) None
of these movies are exactly renowned as cinematic masterpieces as a check of the
reviews on the Internet Movie Database will quickly reveal, but since I've not
seen any of them, I'm not about to cast stones.
So does their War of the Worlds fit their supposed modus operandi? Well, not quite, first and foremost because all
the essential elements of The War of the Worlds are present and correct. Giant
striding war machines? Check (though with 6 instead of 3 legs), Aliens coming to
earth in Cylinders? Check. Key characters buried beneath a collapsed house? Check.
The list goes on. Not bad given that this movie has come from nowhere and reportedly
had a miniscule 1 million dollar budget. An equally positive clue that the moviemakers are
serious (at least about the source material) is their choice of name for the lead
character, George Herbert. What a nice idea. On the negative side, the publicity
poster bears some striking similarities to Independence Day (which let's be honest,
was an unofficial rip off of War of the Worlds anyway) and that implies that the
makers are hardly shy of some liberal "borrowing" when it suits them.
The cast is led by C Thomas Howell, whose credits are long and varied. He had
an early role in ET the Extraterrestrial, and has recently shot a movie with Dennis
Hopper. He plays the aforementioned George Herbert, and as we meet him it's the eve
of his 10th wedding anniversary. George is an Astronomer, has a young (and when we
first meet her, very naked) wife, and a pre-teen son. After a bit of
laboured dialogue about his kid's cold (perhaps just to make a connection with the novel),
we are treated to some scientifically ludicrous material about George and his kid
using a telescope out in the back yard. First George tells his wife not to worry
that it is broad daylight because they are going to look at a really bright star,
then George tells his kid that he can't find what they are looking for because it's
thousands of light years away, but then when his kid does spot something that
"looks like a comet", George looks perplexed and says that "Mars" shouldn't look like
a comet. Earth to George, assuming it was Mars he was looking for in the first place, it is
not thousands of light years away and neither is it a "star." The object is of course a Martian Cylinder.
The sighting of the Cylinder is the cue for a bit of marital stress since
George was meant to be going on an anniversary trip to Washington, but a call
from "work" puts a stop to that. His wife and child set off on their own, and
George goes looking for the "comet". As he drives through the night his car comes
to a stop (along with radio and mobile phones), as a second object crashes to Earth.
George is quickly on the scene, as rather improbably are a large crowd of onlookers.
Where they came from in the middle of nowhere is a bit of a mystery. The scene plays
out a little like the novel, with one of the onlookers trapped in the pit made by
the impact. It does run a lot faster though, since within minutes a giant crab
like machine has emerged and begins zapping the crowd. George flees, manages to
make brief contact with his wife and promises to meet her in Washington. The
dialogue continues to grate, as does the script. After packing up a few possessions,
George bumps into a neighbour loading up his car. Hi says George, "does your car
still work?" "I hope so says the neighbour." Hmm, I think you might want to have
checked that before going to the bother of loading the car. It's a really strange
stilted little conversation, with all the urgency of two guys shooting the breeze about the
state of the local football team, yet a few minutes later, George has climbed a
nearby hill and is looking down on his town getting a good zapping by the Martians.
This really characterises the whole film. It's just a curiously aimless and
lifeless experience. George spends an inordinate amount of time running back and
forth, bumping into some characters and situations from the book, such as the lost
soldier and the priest (with whom he becomes trapped), and one created specifically
for the movie. This is a scenery chewing turn by Jake Busey (credited as William
Busey) as Lt. Samuelson, an opportunist soldier keen on making the most of the
invasion. Samuelson was either crazy before the invasion, or has been tipped over
the edge in its aftermath; it's not clear which.
So George runs and the alien war machines trap around randomly blasting people.
There are few poorly staged scenes of death and destruction that look like someone
took a muddy field and dropped a few old cars into it, and some occasional work for
the makeup department as various disfigured and shell-shocked soldiers stumble past
our hero. The special effects are unfortunately not that special, especially the CGI
scenes of the Martian war machines grabbing people in their mechanical tentacles,
but the War Machines themselves have moments when they look quite sinister, and
certainly the designs (whilst far from the Tripods envisaged by Wells) are interesting.
So returning to my original comments, this is still the second best War of the Worlds
movie of 2005, though by now, you will have probably reached the conclusion that this
is not saying a lot. Without doubt it scores over the Pendragon movie in just about
every conceivable way. The acting is much better, though hampered by a script that
tries to be sophisticated, but simply flounders under the weight of it's own pretensions,
and the effects (while poor) are a thousand times better. I also have to give credit
to director (and writer) David Michael Latt who has come over in interviews as
someone genuinely interested in making a good H.G. Wells movie. Alas, he hasn't
actually achieved it, but then with such a low budget and the need to doubtless
conform to certain B movie conventions (such as the gratuitous nudity) probably
hampered his noble ambitions; though anyone hoping for more naked flesh after the opening
scene will be sorely disappointed. Not then a very good adaptation of the novel,
nor that good an alien invasion movie, but you could do a lot worse.
See also in:
Film & TV
The War of the Worlds by George Pal. The action relocates to cold war America, with the Martian war machines re-invented as sinister flying machines.
The War of the Worlds. A creditable desire to make a movie set in the original Victorian era can't help this terrible production.
The War of the Worlds Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise get a huge bang for their bucks in this massive re-imagining of the story.