I explained some time ago…
It’s June 14, 2005. A 7.0 earthquake off the coast of California prompts tsunami fears, but a tidal (not actually tidal) wave doesn’t occur, there are no major injuries reported, and only modest property damage. Voters in Italy fail to overturn the Catholic country’s restrictive laws on fertility treatments. Michael Jackson is acquitted on all counts of child sexual abuse. Darth Vader is on the cover of the Rolling Stone. The Detroit Pistons beat the San Antonio Spurs 96-79 in game three of the NBA finals. It is a fairly quiet month, all things considered, and I hope you like it here, since we will be back.
It’s summer, so TV is mostly in reruns. Will Ferrell guests on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Pamela Anderson and Bob Saget are on Conan. We’re right around when I started getting too old to care about new music. Mariah Carey tops the charts with “We Belong Together”, followed by Gwen Stefani with “Hollaback Girl”. Kelly Clarkson is on there twice with “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, which I actually do rather like, and “Since U Been Gone,” about which I am neutral. The Killers enter the top ten this week with “Mr. Brightside”, or as you probably know it, “The Killers song that isn’t ‘Somebody Told Me’, but which is still pretty good aside from the fact that the second half of the song is literally just them doing the first half over again.” Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is still in theaters, having opened last month. New this week are the ill-advised Cedric the Entertainer-driven reimagining of The Honeymooners, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D, and a spy film called Mr. & Mrs. Smith which has nothing to do with the 1996 spy TV series Mr. & Mrs. Smith nor with the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock comedy film Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Tomorrow, Batman Begins.
But before that, this. I had this whole shtick planned where I was going to pretend that I wasn’t aware of the Stephen Spielberg movie and thought that this was the highly successful big-budget Hollywood blockbuster adaptation of War of the Worlds that came out in June, 2005, with me being all surprised at how great a departure it was for such a famously skilled filmmaker. But then I actually watched the movie, and… This movie does not even deserve the effort it would take to make those jokes. I try very hard to find the good in everything I watch. I can enjoy the basic wrongness of an Ed Wood film, and I can appreciate the zealous glee of a talented actor hamming it up because the script is crap, or an inexperienced actor giving a minor role in a cheap B-film everything they’ve got because they’re just so grateful for the work. And I can appreciate the sheer misguided gall of a Star Trek fan-series doing an episode where the dialog is just straight-up lifted verbatum directly out of an episode of The West Wing. And besides, I’m not a mean guy by nature, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’d hate to imagine Tim Dunnigan or Illya Woloshyn or Keram Malicki-Sánchez or Rod Pyle or Joe Pearson happening upon my blog (That last one actually happened) and hearing me badmouth them. And if I didn’t genuinely love stuff like War of the Worlds and Captain Power, I wouldn’t have spent four years doing this.
I just can’t do it this time. Hitler Meets Christ may have been a seriously fucked up movie, but at least you got to watch Jesus shoot Force Lightning at Hitler. But this movie is terrible. Timothy Hines, if you’re reading this, I know you put a lot of work in on this and I’m sure you’re a very nice person, but your film is awful, borderline unwatchable garbage, and it isn’t going to do either one of us any good to pretend it isn’t. The acting is wooden, the dialog is stilted, the visual effects are toddlerish, and the pacing is like Sapphire and Steel had a baby with Star Trek the Motion Picture, and that child smoked a whole bunch of weed while falling into a black hole.
It would be folly to call anything in particular the “worst” sin of this movie, but at least in terms of narrative, the first huge mistake is that it attempts to stay as faithful as possible to the book. If you’ve ever been annoyed by an acquaintance who complains when they change something from page to screen, show them this movie. In fact, show this movie to anyone who annoys you. They’ll probably leave you alone from then on.
What’s the problem with being slavishly faithful to the book? Remember, this is 19th century Science Fiction. Sure, we’ve talked at length about the outline of the book, but what’s the actual plot of The War of the Worlds? A nameless man walks from Woking to London, describing in detail what he sees along the way. There’s hardly any point where any of the characters express any agency. There isn’t much dialog, and when characters do speak, they tend to not engage in actual human speech so much as they pontificate. They open their mouths and exposition falls out. The book is by no means awful, but it isn’t really much of a story. Rather, it’s a fictional history that, for better or worse, has been structured like a travelogue. And you can do something with that. You could, for example, present it as a documentary. That worked really well for The Great Martian War. But you wouldn’t want to try to make a traditional narrative-based movie out of it; that would make as much sense as trying to make a traditional movie out of, say, World War Z.
And it didn’t have to be that way. When Timothy Hines started work on the film back in 2001, the plan was to set it in modern Seattle, orienting the tale around a news correspondent and arming the aliens with EMPs. But then September 11 happened, and the idea of a sudden, shocking attack out of the blue against major American cities suddenly stopped being the sort of thing folks were comfortable putting in a movie. It had, as Wells and Welles once said, “Ceased to be a game.” So Hines and his colleage Susan Goforth rewrote the movie as a period piece. The film was scheduled for a theatrical release in March, 2005, but, according to Hines, venues pulled out for fear of reprisals from Paramount, which was getting ready to release their own adaptation.
Or maybe they pulled out because the movie was three hours long and basically unwatchable. Three. Hours. THREE HOURS.
The film was recut in September 2005 as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds: Director’s Cut trimming it to a still-ponderous two and a quarter hours. It was recut again a year later trimming another ten minutes (and replacing some of the visual effects) as The Classic War of the Worlds. I have seen bits of all three versions, but my own innate sense of self-preservation forbid me from watching more than one of them all the way through and I don’t remember which one. Then in 2012, Hines took the footage, added some new material, and edited the thing in to a mockumentary called War of the Worlds — The True Story, purporting to be a documentary of historical events, with the 2005 film’s footage recontextualized as historical reconstructions and archival photography. And I wish I’d found that one first, because it sounds like that might actually be watchable, but I’ll be damned if I watch another version of this movie. Sorry.
There is hardly any point in summarizing the film. Just read the book. It’s all there, in excruciating detail. Most of the film’s dialog is closely drawn from the book, the nameless protagonist providing voiceover narration wherever it isn’t convenient to just have characters recite passage of the text, such as Ogilvy explaining that the apparent “pulsing” of Mars through the telescope is actually just the telescope vibrating due to the clockwork.
But somehow it gets worse when they go off-book. They insert a comic relief scene where Ogilvy, trying to get help upon discovering the first Martian cylinder, gets briefly locked up by a local farmer who assumes he’s gone mad. Where Wells says, “One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed,” the movie tries to create a romantic scene. The nameless protagonist and his nameless wife out for a stroll at twilight, him playfully trying to make Mars’s “ruddy cast” sound sexy as he impresses her with his astronomical knowledge as they look up at the—
I don’t even. Night is a thing that actually exists, right? I mean, the filmmakers must have some firsthand knowledge of what night looks like, right? They should realize that night isn’t just day but a few degrees above the treetops the sky instantly turns black, right?
Hardly anything looks real in this movie. And not just the visual effects shots. Lots of the interiors are shot on a greenscreen, I have no particular sense of why. Exterior shots are invariably tinted to suggest the time of day, orange for daytime, and blue for night, these being the only concessions to the concept of day and night as things that exist. It’s basically like they keep beaming back and forth between CSI Miami and CSI NY. An establishing shot of Victorian London uses CGI so piss-poor it it seems to have inspired the Victorian London episodes of Doctor Who. Again, London is a real place, right? I mean, you can actually just go out and take pictures of it? What the everloving—
And it is just so ponderous. I was very glad to do as he asked, and so become one of the privileged spectators within the contemplated enclosure. I failed to find Lord Hilton at his house, but I was told he was expected from London by the six o’clock train from Waterloo; and as it was then about a quarter past five, I went home, had some tea, and walked up to the station to waylay him. — The War of the Worlds, Chapter 3. It takes half an hour for the aliens to actually present themselves, though it feels much, much longer. Before they do, we’re treated to five minutes of the protagonist walking from Horsell Common to the local manor house to ask the local lord to help set up a cordon. He isn’t home, so we’re treated to another five minutes of the protagonist walking back to his own house, waiting until six o’clock, then walking to the train station to meet said lord when he gets off the train. Then walking back to Horsell Common. No one will be seated during the exhilarating “walking back and forth to the train station” scene.
Finally, mercifully, a Martian shows itself… Well okay, I will give them that it is consistent with the description in the book, aside from the fact that it looks for all the world like it’s flying. I know it’s supposed to be walking on tentacles, but there is neither any sense of weight to it, nor any sense that those tentacles actually exist in the same spaciotemporal dimension as the background. Also, the alien is weirdly flat. It feels like it should be mounted on a wall demanding a robot bring it five teenagers with “attitude”.
And then suddenly it’s night and Ogilvy and his entourage are planning to approach the pit under flag of truce. If you haven’t read the book, you basically have no chance in hell of figuring out what the heat ray is meant to look like. To wit, it’s a wobbly mirror. Again, true to the book, the ray itself is invisible. They just wave their mirror around and stuff bursts into flames.
Or rather, they wave their mirror around, and we cut to the victims, and there are some little gold sparklies on the screen, and everyone just sort of stands there for a good ninety seconds looking alarmed and sort of dancing, and then they burst into flames, some instantly turning into still-dancing skeletons that kinda remind me of the skeletons from that high-end porno movie Pirates from a few years ago.
Oh, and one of the victims looks for all the world like being heat-rayed gives her an orgasm.
After what feels like about six hours of people very slowly gurning and not trying to run or anything until the special effects department gets around to drawing some flames on them, the horrified protagonist runs back home, stopping only to chastise some people by the side of the road who, not having born witness to the destruction, think the whole thing sounds a bit silly. This too is taken straight from the book.
I get the feeling that literally all the filmmakers knew about Victorian England came down to “They were kind of repressed and prim.” With absolutely no indication of excitement at all, the protagonist deadpans to his wife this bit of narration: “I must confess the sight of all this armament, all this preparation, greatly excited me. My imagination became belligerent, and defeated the invaders in a dozen striking ways.” She smiles nobly and suggests that it is, “Something of your schoolboy dreams of battle and heroism,” with far less passion but exactly the same sense of this as something that has real consequences for real humans as a Presidential candidate talking about the possibility of starting another war in the middle east.
But shit gets real when their CGI house starts getting grazed by the heat ray and starts dropping CGI bricks and roofing before catching on CGI fire.
We’re almost an hour in before we see a tripod. It’s… Not the worst thing in the world. Still very bad, though. It’s just about passable when it’s not trying to interact with anything. The illusion completely collapses when they do. The curate’s demise looks like something from Photoshop Disasters, and the black smoke is even worse, having, I think, been added in MSPaint. The whole “slavishly translate the whole text of the book verbatum” thing means that this is also the only adaptation to show us the less-common types of Martian machines, such as the flying machine (It serves absolutely no purpose in the story, and is clearly only there because it’s mentioned in the book that they had one) and the “handling” machine that collected humans for consumption.
The scene where we witness the aliens exsanguinating a human victim should be gruesome. And it would be, except that at the key moment, the live actress magically transforms into a low-poly CGI model. Not a model of a human, even, but, like, a ragdoll or something. What I’m getting at here is that this is an intensely ridiculous-looking movie.
But hey, at least the acting is terrible too. When people talk, they rarely seem to be talking to each other, just pontificating for the benefit of the audience. The artilleryman seems to be just reading from a prepared speech (and the protagonist’s abandonment of him is handled in a montage). Most of the dialog is delivered by actors staring vacantly off into the distance, which is terrible, but also probably the right way to do it, since most of the dialog doesn’t actually read like dialog, but rather as narration. Instead of freaking out at their impending demise, people will somberly declare their scientific theories about how Martian technology works or what their strategic plans are. Upon watching the Martians feed, the writer’s reaction is not to wet himself and crawl off into a corner to whimper, but rather to explain through his tears that the Martians, being highly advanced, must have evolved beyond the need for a digestive system. And when, again, as in the book, he finally decides to end it all by throwing himself in front of a tripod (The damned things pick that exact moment to die, forcing us to keep going with this interminable movie), he does so only after declaring his intentions. The single best performance in the entire thing is the newspaper boy who tells the protagonist about the Martian cylinder, excitedly chattering about the possibility of “Men from Mars, roasted alive inside a meteor.”
The tone is radically inconsistent. I assume they’re trying to convey Victorian stoicism again, but mostly, everyone just alternates between bored and a very low-key histrionic (That is, a degree of histrionic that does not interfere with all their dialog sounding like someone reading off a placard at the museum). Possibly the most egregious is any scene with The Writer and The Wife (Played by producer and cowriter Susan Goforth), which I think genuinely tries to suggest affection between these two despite a complete lack of chemistry, a complete lack of anything useful to this end in the book they’re adapting, a strong belief that as Victorians, no one should show emotion unless they’re having a panic attack, and neither one of them being any good at acting. When he returns home after the attack on Horsell Common, she listens to his shellshocked description of events with what’s supposed to be sincerity, but comes off like she’s humoring a small child who had a bad dream. The next day. the two of them apparently go about their business as usual, her, I think, pressing flowers as he reads the newspaper over tea. And though the narration dutifully tells us how compelling the writer found the artilleryman’s plans to build a brave new world, the actual speech is dull and passionless, and the rest of their time together is handled via a montage ending with the writer waving back to him as he walks away.
This movie is kind of a perfect storm of terrible. Bad in practically every way a movie can be (The audio levels are okay. That is the one common low-budget sin this movie doesn’t commit). I hope you can believe me when I say that its low budget is far from the worst of its problems. We’ve talked about low-budget productions before. Some people are able to squeeze out a masterpiece on a tiny budget, and some people can squeeze out… Something that has a kind of indie low-budget charm. You know what you can’t do on a shoestring budget? A three hour special-effects extravaganza. You could maybe do something with intense character-driven drama, but you know what the worst possible way to build compelling characters is? To slavishly adhere to the text of an H. G. Wells novel. Out of the entire cast, there’s only five characters who have names (And that’s counting “Greg the Butcher” and the Writer’s servant, who only has a name so he can shout at her to evacuate the burning house). Everyone else, including the nominal protagonist, is just “The Writer” or “The Wife” or “The Writer’s Brother”.No one was crying out for a completest, novel-accurate adaptation of The War of the Worlds. You couldn’t have given Spielberg this brief and had him turn out a functional movie. It’s just bad. Badly acted, badly written, badly made and a bad idea in the first place.