Annoyed now that I used “Gotta get ’em all” way back in Tales from /lost+found 7. Text below the fold.
Aside from the fact that it seems to be under military occupation, the next town George and Kerry come to is bizarrely normal. They still have power, their cars are working, but George notes that they clearly don’t have communication. They stop to buy food at an Albertsons’, and George asks the shopkeep about it. He doesn’t know anything specific, has only heard conflicting rumors about the nature of the attackers, and isn’t sure if they’re going to have to evacuate. “Heard it was terrorists. Heard it was monsters from under the Earth. Heard it was the military screwing around with chemicals. Nobody knows what’s going on. Too much nonsense to go around worrying about the inevitable.” I get the sense from the way a group of people, presumably the shopkeep’s family, are gathered behind him, that everyone’s on edge, but lacking anything they can actually do in the near term, they’re just going about their business waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s a little surreal, given that this is the only town we’ve seen that hasn’t been hit, and the fact that nothing in the film actually relies on one particular town to be in good condition feels to me like it’s a deliberate attempt to evoke the notion of the strange capriciousness of war, where you might very well see one house or street or even town that remains perfectly intact, somehow overlooked by the violence around it.
On the steps of some large public building, George pulls out that photograph of his family to emote over it. He mentions to Kerry that his son’s nickname is “Wrangler” (a name we never hear anyone call the kid), just like Galileo, and that George had met his wife at the Smithsonian Star Trek Exhibit. I don’t remember seeing him there.
Hopewell is in worse shape. An alien walker attacks as George and Kerry approach a refugee registration post, and we see the first proper battle since the first one at the meteor pit. There’s numerous individual shots which are clearly meant as direct homages to the 1953 film.
The aliens reveal a new form of attack as well, disgorging small four-legged vehicles (these might be the aliens themselves, it’s not clear) with long, phallic tongues that look like a cross between an Arrakis sandworm and a Xenomorph.
They find George’s brother buried and delirious in the rubble of his demolished house. His dialogue is only partially coherent and hard to make out, but we get a bit of a sense of what sort of guy he is when he tries to comfort George, even as they pull back the debris covering him to discover that he’s been blown in half, his body ending abruptly in a CGI cauterized wound below his rib cage. With difficulty, Kerry persuades George to leave once his brother has died, but the two get separated on what I guess is the bank of the James river (The movie’s geography doesn’t extend much beyond place and highway names. The mountains in the background suggest that they got their ideas about the terrain of the Tidewater region from Disney’s Pocahontas).
George drifts downriver for at least a day in a small boat he finds, eventually abandoning it to sleep in a broken-down truck parked by the side of the river, allegedly north of Charles City, even though the river runs south of the city, and it’s not like rivers can get lost. He wakes with company, Pastor Victor, this film’s version of the Curate. Victor is kind, and composed, and takes care of George, whose cold has gotten really bad at this point. He thinks of the aliens as a form of demon, and believes their presence signifies the rapture, and therefore his faith will protect him. Admittedly, there’s a lot of different variations on rapture theology, but coercing an alien invasion to fit the model seems like a stretch, and Pastor Victor’s theology seems otherwise pretty mainstream, so this might just be down to filmmakers thinking rapture theology is a lot more mainstream than it is. He agrees to accompany George to Washington.
George finds some berries with antioxidant properties, to help with Victor’s fever, because the writer forgot which one of them was sick, and they somehow fail to notice that an alien walker is standing directly over them. They escape unscathed, but Victor’s faith takes a major blow when he finds one of his parishioners, who curses him and God both over the death of her children.
They somehow cover about a hundred miles by nightfall, since Victor’s crisis of faith next manifests in him reminiscing about a woman he’d been attracted to in Stafford as they pass it. They narrowly survive when the aliens release a low-hanging green toxic gas, similar to the black smoke that appeared in the novel. Victor becomes increasingly distant, just muttering that he’s hungry over and over for several scenes. After passing a destroyed cruise ship in a small pond, they hole up in a veterinarian’s abandoned home office. While they scavenge, George notices a man in an adjacent house. He runs outside to meet him, and the man seems utterly casual, almost unaware of what’s going on. They’re both forced back inside by encroaching green smoke, and we never see the other guy again. He looks more annoyed than frightened.
While they wait out the smoke upstairs, Victor finally voices his fear, that God might have abandoned them. Before George can respond, an alien craft crashes near the house, and the floor gives out below them.
As his faith deserts him, Victor challenges George on why he’s still trying to get to Washington. He cites the physics principle that if two randomly moving objects in space have a higher probability of meeting if one of them stands still. Victor finds this unsatisfying, as he’d privately hoped George was simply acting on faith. After George has a nightmare about finding his wife’s mangled body in the debris, Victor finally snaps.
Because it’s been more than four days. Yeah. That’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back: the bible is “very specific” that the rapture will occur three and a half days after the killing starts, so the fact that he’s still here means that he’s been… Left Behind (yes he uses those words). This is not a variation on rapture theology I’m specifically familiar with, but hey. I just like his absolute certainty that the bible is “very specific” that if aliens show up and take more than three days to cause the resurrection, it means that God has abandoned you.
George takes stock of their provisions. While explaining why you can’t eat food that’s past its sell-by date since it will expose you to toxins that weaken your immune system, he has a Lightbulb Moment about the immune system, and declares that the way to fight the flu is to inject a “stronger, deadlier virus,” and looks for Chekov’s Rabies Vaccine (Which Victor had spotted shortly before the house fell down on them), claiming, since weapons hadn’t worked, a virus might, since it’s “life fighting life”, and that injecting an alien with rabies vaccine will “Spread toxins that will carry a deadly disease.”
Hooboy. Should we take inventory of what’s wrong with that?
- Moldy food isn’t necessarily unsafe, especially dry goods like the ones they’re looking at.
- You don’t cure the flu by injecting a “stronger, deadlier virus”. That would kill you. You sometimes treat some diseases by introducing a weaker, less deadly one.
- “Spread toxins that will carry a disease” is gibberish.
Viruses aren’t technically alive. Turns out that in 2015, ten years after this movie was made, evidence was found that viruses evolved from ancient precursors to modern cells, and do count as properly alive, contrary to what was generally believed previously. You can have this one, movie.
- Only rabies vaccine is a dead virus vaccine, so no, even if viruses are alive, the ones in that vaccine aren’t.
- Also, it’s really really hard for viruses to jump species, since their mechanism of operation is DNA-specific, so it’s highly unlikely that an Earth virus would affect aliens. (Bacteria are completely different)
- Also, viruses don’t release toxins. That’s bacteria.
Victor hears shouts outside and clears some dirt from the shattered windowframe. They see a man and a child cocooned by the aliens in glowing materials some distance off. To their horror, a three-fingered alien hand pierces the chest of the man, causing him to thrash in fast-motion accompanied by a sucking sound. George hears the child cry out for his father and imagines it to be Alex. Victor restrains him, but he too is completely broken by this. He finds a bottle of wine and drinks it, declaring that he no longer believes in anything but himself, and that there is no God. He confesses that he’s been leading George not toward DC, but toward shelter in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It does not say much for the astronomer’s sense of celestial navigation if he can’t tell the difference between north and southwest.
A large alien tentacle breaks into their shelter, and George saves Victor by injecting rabies vaccine into it, and, because this is a movie, of course it works. Yes. This is the first War of the Worlds adaptation to propose that the aliens are, in fact, defeated, by a deliberate act of a human being. I mean, we never see a living alien after this point, but okay, they do not actually outright say that this is what kills them for reals. If you want, you can interpret it not as causality but foreshadowing: George demonstrates that disease could work so that it isn’t a deus ex machina when it turns out to be what does them in at the end.
In fact, I think that’s the best way to interpret it. There is one unquestionable thing which this movie does better than any other adaptation we’ve talked about, and it’s foreshadowing. Right from the get-go, we’ve had this theme of disease bouncing around. Alex has a cold right at the beginning, then George battles severe flu-like symptoms for much of the movie’s second act. The subject of antibiotics and medicine comes up several times, even George’s dodgy claims about why you can’t eat spoiled food play into it. Every other adaptation fails to mention disease until the epilogue. The only thing that even comes close is the mention in the George Pal film that alien blood is anemic.
Oh, and also diseases cause the aliens to discharge pink electricity. Oh, Asylum, don’t ever stop being ridiculous.
Victor’s faith is restored instantly by George’s success. It’s a short-lived victory, though, since the tentacle comes back ten seconds later and sneezes on him, causing the pastor to dissolve gruesomely. George is so shaken by the horror of it that he just curls up under a rug and hides. In the morning, the aliens are gone, but George is still so rattled that he only notices after hours of wandering around the demolished basement, pointedly trying to not look at Victor’s remains.
He finds some carrots in the garden of a house that has a tractor trailer sticking out of its roof, then nearly misses noticing his wife’s car abandoned on a street. Inside, he finds the ring-box he’d given Alex, now empty. His pained, tired expression is difficult to pin down to a single emotion. The scene is weakened a little bit by the fact that I have no idea where it’s taking place. Is he in Washington? (No, not yet). Why is her car here? Did someone steal it trying to flee? Are we meant to wonder if she herself tried to abandon DC? And more importantly, is that what George thinks? The only working cars we’ve seen in some time were in the nameless, untouched city before Hopewell. Is this as far as she’d gotten when the aliens arrived and, like George, she had to walk the rest of the way? But why would it be here, then, if Victor had been leading George south-west? The reveal of Victor’s detour doesn’t really contribute anything to the story: there’s no indication of how much this puts George out or that it serves as a measurable delay (Given where they started, Victor couldn’t actually have taken them that far out of their way without crossing back over the river; even going due west would still have gotten George generally closer to DC).
He collapses from exhaustion in a wooded area (How the hell is he navigating anyway?) and the photo of his family gets carried away on the wind. When he discovers it missing, he breaks down. He throws himself on the ground screaming, and cries himself to sleep.
I’ll admit, this movie is doing a good job of depicting the slow, grinding despair that wears people down until they finally snap, not over a big thing, but something small that is just one step too far. Victor’s spiritual crisis starts twenty minutes before it actually comes to a head. It goes from a moment of doubt and uncertainty, to the fear that he’s been rejected by God, to his own rejection of his faith, with incremental steps along the way, not just the cliche, “I just discovered the problem of theodicy so now I am an angry cliche strawman atheist played by Kevin Sorbo in a Harold Cronk film.” George’s breakdown is even slower.
A lot of it is dialogueless, too. After Victor’s death, George is alone for the first extended period in the film, and when George is alone, his only dialogue is the occasional prayer. He’d been alone for two segments before, before and after meeting Kerry, but those are short sequences on film, just a few quick cuts to suggest the passage of time. Here, we stay with George much longer as he wanders through ruined and abandoned towns, becoming ever more distraught.
In parallel to their initial meeting by the shed in the woods, it’s Kerry who finds George, again unconscious, at his lowest moment. Kerry insists that DC is gone, and asks George to come with him to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he claims hundreds of soldiers and other survivors are gathering. And here, Kerry starts to sound more like the novel’s artilleryman, from whom his character is clearly inspired:
Kerry: It’s just us now. Today we hide, tomorrow we rebuild
George: Tomorrow?Kerry: Today, tomorrow, next year, ten years. We start an army. For us. For those of us who are brave enough to fight
But this is a red herring, because Kerry isn’t the real equivalent of the artilleryman. George slugs him for his insistance that Washington has been destroyed without survivors, only to find a gun to his head, weilded by Samuelson, who informs him that, “An assault on one of my officers is punishable by death in my new world.”
Samuelson has gone full-Busey now. He’s promoted himself to General in the “Eastern Resistance”, calls George’s brother a pussy, laughing at the story of his demise, and even seems to have developed a case of Tourette Syndrome, as he breaks off in the middle of a sentence to stammer the word “shit” repeatedly several times. A grinning lunatic, he conscripts George under threat of death.
Despite his lunacy, though, Samuelson is still able to recognize George’s value as a scientist. “It’s the scientists that will win this war. It’s the scientists that have won every war. He is exactly what we need. You will die. I will probably die. Why? To buy his brain more time to beat these fuckers.” Just to demonstrate how much more valuable he considers George than anyone else, he suddenly draws his gun and shoots Kerry in the head, saying, “Compared to his knowledge and intellect, you are so worthless that, you know, I think, you know, I might as well, I think, I might as well just do this.”
In most movies, Samuelson would straight up be the “real” antagonist here. The aliens, after all, are going to take care of themselves: they’re more a force of nature than an antagonist. It would be Samuelson who’s the actual threat for the protagonist to overcome. That could work as an angle. It’s always been one of the difficulties in adapting this particular story that the hero has little to no agency: the story isn’t especially about him, and nothing he does particularly leads to the resolution. The aliens are the iceberg, or the earthquake, or the asteroid: what’s lacking is someone to be the human antagonist who wants to suppress the cure for the zombie plague so he can sell it, or lock the third-class passengers below deck so they can’t get to the lifeboats. We need a Billy Zane.
But here, the movie does something unexpected. They instead take a sort of a page from the novel, by demonstrating the gulf between Samuelson’s powers and his ambitions. Because he might talk a good game (Well, a crazy game, but it sounds reasonable on paper), but he’s far less of a threat than he seems. Before he’s even gotten to gloat over Kerry’s body, George smashes his head in with a rock. The remaining soldiers barely glance at their fallen “General’ before just wandering away. They may have been willing to obey him in their desperation to find anyone who could tell them what to do, but there’s no real loyalty there.
It’s daytime in the next scene, as George approaches the Lincoln Memorial. From the angle, he must be approaching via the Arlington Memorial Bridge, though the design of the bridge is entirely wrong, as are its proportions, and the Potomac comes almost up to the steps of the monument. Which is facing the wrong way. Honestly, it looks more like the Jefferson Memorial from its placement relative to the water. The broken-off bottom half of the Washington Monument is visible in the distance, and the dome of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum can be seen in some of the long shots, though the National Mall has been largely turned into a quarry, and what landmarks you can see are all proportioned wrong for the real-world distances. So business as usual, really.
After sitting alone at the monument for some time, he sees one of the smaller alien quadrupeds standing motionless in the ruins of a building that looks nothing like anything in that part of town, and decides he’s had enough. He walks up to the alien machine, and accuses it of having taken away his family, his God, and his life, and demands his death of it. Instead, the machine collapses at his feet, which is kinda disappointing to George, given how far gone he is. As he looks down, confused, at the fallen alien, survivors emerge from hiding to confirm that the alien is dead, and reveal that the invaders have been slowly dying over the past few days. George asks about his son, and one of the survivors tells him that they’ve got “lots of children.”
First Alex, then Felicity, emerge from hiding and scramble over the debris to embrace George as the camera pans up to reveal defunct alien walkers standing amongst the ruins of the city, framed by a shot of damaged but not-demolished DC landmarks you could not possibly all get into the frame at the same time.
It’s hard to say what to make of this movie. I mean, come on. This is The Asylum. They’re supposed to be making cheap schlock full of bad CGI, excessive gore and brief nudity. And obviously, all of that is in here. But then there’s all this other stuff. What this adaptation really seized on in a way that no other adaptation we’ve looked at has is the way that living through war or natural disaster slowly drains and grinds people down, that you simply get worn out from it. It’s a movie that wants to show the slow, subtle horrors of war rather than the large, grandiose ones. That’s the angle, and it’s one that works really well for this particular story, whose plot, after all, is mostly, “A man walks a long way and sees the horrors of war.”
Time is always at a premium in a movie, and that makes it surprising how much time this movie takes with its characters. George’s slow breakdown, Victor’s slow loss of faith, even Samuelson’s quasi-megalomania are built up over time rather than coming as a sudden, explosive character change.
There’s also an interestingly underplayed religious angle. Science and religion, of course, are not natural enemies, though it’s widely believed so by people who are either sixteenth-century Catholics, modern American evangelical protestants, or atheists who believe the previous two groups represent the only possible ways religions could work. But Hollywood almost always wants to present the two as opposed, and almost always wants to come down on the side of religion, even if you’re not an explicitly religious filmmaker. You’d expect to see a conflict between Victor and George, with the scientist opposing the pastor’s religious views. But George is clearly a man of faith himself, and while he may not agree with the details of Victor’s eschatology, he isn’t dismissive of it, and at least broadly agrees with the general principles of a higher power watching out for them. George never has a “come to Jesus” moment where he submits himself to a higher power and is rewarded, though: like Victor, his faith is challenged by the tragedy he experiences, but there’s no real sense of his beliefs being changed. Kinda like racism in last week’s TV series episode, it’s unusual to see the religious element being addressed at all, without it rearing up to consume the plot and themes of the story.
But what stymies me is this: why? Why is the studio that will one day give us Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No trying to make a serious movie about the horrors of war? Why is any studio trying to make a serious movie about the horrors of war and also cheap CGI aliens, excessive gore and brief nudity? How am I to take your deep and complex character arcs seriously when your aliens have acid-spitting penis-tentacles? Who is the intended audience for a movie like this?
On a technical level, the movie is mostly okay, nothing special. The CGI was terrible when it was made and age hasn’t made it charming, but the cinematography in the scenes without visual effects is adequate. The acting is also adequate, again, nothing special. Aside from the CGI, there’s really very little outright bad about it. It’s surprising how geographically grounded it is, but also how haphazard: place names and directions are right, but scale is all over the place. It’s like the writer charted out George’s journey on a political map, but didn’t bother to look at the scale or the topography.
There’s references to the Blue Ridge Mountains which seem to be meant as symbolism for the concept of giving up and going to ground, much as Washington is a symbol for carrying on and moving forward, and again, geographical symbolism? In an Asylum film? The hell?
It punches above its weight. It does an okay job of it, with a couple of strong characters (Though it’s a heck of a sausage-fest; there are four speaking female roles, but only one has more than four lines, and Felicity only has at most a dozen) and some powerful themes that are well-realized. But who the hell comes to The Asylum for that? Why would you do this? What were they thinking?
And where would they go from here?
In case you wanted a closer look at that game box. Of course, the internet can’t really do justice to that sweet 90s holofoil…
And now for something… exactly the same.
It is June 28, 2005. In Afghanistan, eleven Navy SEALs and eight US Army Special Operations aviators are killed in Operation Red Wings when a reconnaissance team is compromised on the ground, and the helicopter sent to their aid is shot down. It is considered one of the worst tragedies in US Special Forces history. The final design for Manhattan’s Freedom Tower is unveiled.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman and The Even Stevens Movie are among today’s home video releases. In theaters this week are Batman Begins, March of the Penguins, and Romero’s Land of the Dead. Dead to Rights: Reckoning is released for the PlayStation Portable. Lesley Gore, best known for “It’s My Party”, releases Ever Since, her first album of new material in thirty years. Mariah Carey is number one on the charts with “We Belong Together”, followed by Gwen Steffani’s “Hollaback Girl”. Kelly Clarkson holds two spots in the top ten, with “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Since U Been Gone”, both holding steady since last week at numbers 6 and 9.
World events preempt the first half-hour of prime time, but ABC goes on to air the first episode of Empire, a miniseries about the rise of Caesar Augustus. Star Trek is off the air, of course, with the finale of Star Trek: Enterprise back in May. Ten days ago, Doctor Who wrapped up its first season with Christopher Eccleston’s final episode, “The Parting of the Ways”. We’re a little more than half-way through the run of Power Rangers SPD with Saturday’s episode, “Perspective”, their take on Rashomon. I mean, kinda. They half-ass it, literally just showing the same footage four times with dialogue that’s almost identical except for which character is being praised by the others. The episode serves primarily to tease the introduction of Sam, the time-traveling Omega Ranger, when the show returns from a short break. Morgan Spurlock is Jon’s guest on The Daily Show.
The Asylum. A film production company whose business model is based fifty percent on targeting people who only ever watch movies “ironically” and fifty percent on confusing old people into disappointing their grandchildren on movie night. “What do you mean? I thought you liked those Transmorphers. Fine, we’ll watch that other one you like, Snakes on a Train.” They churn out low-budget films, usually starring one B-list actor who you’ve actually heard of, packed with cheap sensationalism, but not quite as trashy as a proper grindhouse film, and you could sorta imagine that if Jaws had never happened and the Hollywood Blockbuster weren’t the dominant form of “proper” movie, these would be considered pretty much business-as-usual. They’re not on par with “real” movies, but they’re basically competent, at least half of the time.
Though a lot of their movies stand on their own, Sharknado being the most infamous, their bread-and-butter is what they term “Mockbusters”. These are films with a similar title and vaguely similar concept to a major studio film, released within a few days of their counterpart. They claim, grandparents aside, that they’re not trying to confuse anyone, but are honest about their intention to piggyback on the marketing hype of high-budget films. If the public’s already in the mood for a movie about the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse, they say, why not put out three or four of them? Given the glut of zombie movies a few years ago, or Warner’s shameless and misguided attempts to imitate the Marvel Cinematic Universe with DC, or the DreamWorks/Pixar wars, or, heck, the cluster of airport disaster films in the late ’70s, it’s hard to fault them for anything more than being especially shameless about it. There were two major studio films about Hercules in 2014, why should The Asylum get worse flack for making a third?
Heck, The Asylum is only really responsible for a third of the War of the Worlds adaptations that came out in 2005.
The thing is, of course, that they’re just so shameless about it. The DaVinci Treasure. AVH: Alien vs. Hunter. Death Raceers. The Day the Earth Stopped. American Warship. Atlantic Rim. The Terminators. Battle of Los Angeles. I’m not making any of these up.
But before Transmorphers and Paranormal Entity, before Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies and Android Cop, long before Mecha-Shark vs Mega-Shark and Sharknado, before 2012: Doomsday, 2012: Supernova and 2012: Ice Age, even before the Sherlock Holmes movie where he battles a giant robot Tyrannosaurus (Seriously, this exists), there was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
HG Wells’ War of the Worlds was The Asylum’s first Mockbuster, and its success — Blockbuster ordered a hundred thousand copies — is a big part of the reason that the company took the path it did. But while the next decade would see The Asylum progressively going further and further over-the-top, becoming more self-aware, and reveling in their own ridiculousness, here in 2005, they were still looking to be an ordinary, respectable, low-budget movie maker. You’re not going to see any giant sharks, zombies, or robot dinosaurs in this movie. The most outlandish thing you’re going to see is giant alien war machines with death rays, and, I mean, it’s War of the Worlds. You pretty much have to.
And that is… Kind of a problem with this movie. I find myself in the weird position of saying that this movie would be better if it were worse. Because David Michael Latt’s movie is… Fine. It’s okay. It is an intensely okay adaptation of the novel, adapted, as almost every other one is, to the present day. It’s moderately faithful to the plot of the novel. Thematically, it’s quite different, but it’s different in that it is strongly focused on the impact of the invasion to humanity rather than getting bogged down in the technical details of the aliens. The aliens themselves are somewhat liminal figures: most of their appearances in the movie serve to mark the end of a sequence, the point where everyone stops doing what they were doing and runs away to the next scene. Allegedly, the movie’s themes were heavily inspired by Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist, a movie set in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during the Nazi invasion of Poland. So this is clearly a movie that wants to be heavy and serious and say things about the human condition.
And then you get shots like this:
Also, it has Jake Busey in it. “Take my somber movie about the horrors of war seriously: it’s got Jake Busey in it,” said no one ever, except David Michael Latt.
That’s really the big stylistic failing of the movie. There’s very little specifically wrong with it: it’s a weak movie with second-string talent behind it, but it’s not an outright failure on a technical or narrative level. No, the problem this movie has is that if you put it next to almost any other movie ever made, and asked me to argue why you should watch War of the Worlds instead of the other one, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. Put it next to a good movie, and the good movie is better. Put it next to a bad movie, and the bad movie might at least be an interesting sort of failure. Put it next to the great thrust of movies that are somewhere in the middle, and, well, whichever, I guess.
The invaders are never specifically identified as being from Mars. In fact, I don’t think anyone ever comes out and calls them aliens. Not, as in some of our past examples, that they play coy about it and try to convince us that no one believes it’s aliens; more like the fact that the invaders are extraterrestrial is just so obvious that no one needs to point it out. One person does refer to the invaders as “terrorists”, but it’s not meant as a denial of the truth, but as a demonstration of how completely the lines of information have broken down, that no one’s been able to disseminate details about the attacks. The opening credits do show a Martian landscape, though, just in case we were unsure. It’s overlaid with “computer-vision” effects, as if to suggest we’re seeing the point of view of a Mars rover — Spirit and Opportunity were still big in the public consciousness a year into their extended missions. We return to Earth to meet our hero, played by once-promising actor, guy who was the second choice to play Marty in Back to the Future right behind the other guy who didn’t play Mary in Back to the Future, and person I keep confusing with the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island, C. Thomas Howell. He’s playing an astronomer named, in keeping with federal guidelines on protagonist naming in Wells adaptations, George Herbert.
He flirts heavily with his wife, Felicity, as they prepare for a trip to Washington to mark their anniversary. The scene doesn’t come off as especially salacious on paper, but she’s just gotten out of the shower and her breasts are exposed for so much of the scene that there is really no excusing this as anything other than really shameless titillation, and there was absolutely no warning that this was going to happen in this movie, and it’s the only nudity in the thing. After a little backstory and foreshadowing — their son has a cold — he heads downstairs. They don’t say it directly, but I gather Mars is in opposition, because his son, Alex (played by Howell’s real-life son), is trying to find it in the backyard telescope before they leave. George doubts it will be visible in full sunlight, but his son thinks he sees it. What he’s actually seeing is a CGI meteor, which impresses George enough that his wife is worried.
Her worries are borne out when the phone rings. It’s the observatory, where George’s boss wants him to come in and look at this wicked cool meteor shower. They never actually say where the Herberts live. The contextual clues seem like they indicate somewhere in the middle of Virginia: the only other place mentioned by name is Hopewell, which is a city in Virginia (Though also the name of unincorporated towns in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland). But Felicity mentions it being a five-hour drive to DC, which would put them much farther away. And her car has Delaware plates. They also mention highways numbered 85 and 40, which might suggest he’s somewhere in the vicinity of Chapel Hill, Raleigh, or Durham, North Carolina, and that’s reasonable since Duke and UNC both have associated observatories.
But personally, I think the most interesting place he could be that’s five hours’ drive from DC, would have to be Green Bank, West Virginia, where the Robert Byrd Radio Telescope is located, though it doesn’t quite fit, since they’ve got a cordless telephone and cell phones, which are, check this: illegal in Green Bank, on account of they don’t want anything interfering with the radio telescope. But maybe they live in the next town over or something. But keep Green Bank in mind if you ever find yourself wanting to write a radio telescope-related horror story.
Actually, never mind. The third time I watched it, I caught a line about halfway through where he mentions being from Greensboro. Which means he presumably works at a fictionalized version of the Cline Observatory at Guilford Technical Community College. So kudos to the filmmakers for actually getting the geography more-or-less right, even if they seem not to understand how walking works. He promises his family that he’ll catch up with them the next day. His wife takes it badly, which is entirely fair, because it’s their anniversary and he’s doing the cliche fictional man-who-always-puts-work-ahead-of-family thing. It comes from nowhere and goes nowhere and has nothing to do with his character development. There’s no plot arc where he has to learn to put his family first or anything: this whole development exists purely to give George the specific motivation of reuniting with his family later.
There wasn’t even a hint of tension in the family unit so far, so it feels very out-of-nowhere when Alex asks if this means his parents are going to divorce. To reassure him, George puts Alex in charge of the diamond ring he plans to give Felicity on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he proposes renewing their vows.
Time goes just a little wonky, as it’s night in the next scene. Possibly it was late afternoon when they left. That would track with the idea that George not arriving in Washington until the next morning was a reasonable thing to suggest, but Felicity imposes an urgency on their departure that seems like she’s got plans to actually do something when they get there. That makes it unlikely that their plan was to roll into DC in the middle of the night.
Another meteor streaks across the sky and George’s car suddenly dies in the middle of nowhere. Or not. Looked like a lonely country road, but when he gets out and walks to the impact site, it’s filled with people, confused and curious. George himself is confused as hell that the object didn’t make a bigger crater. He makes a little stab at that ’50s sci-fi movie thing where declaring himself a scientist automatically puts him in charge, but he doesn’t really have the confidence to impress anyone since his scientific background doesn’t answer any of the relevant questions about what the object is, where it came from, or why no one’s cell phone works.
What he can do is to help a woman whose boyfriend fell into the pit. Actually no, help is too strong a word. Try to help. One of the things this movie does well is its use of themes and symbolism: for most of the film, even before the invaders get involved, George fails at basically everything he tries to do. Just as the combined might of man will prove unable to turn back the aliens, whether it’s driving to work, taking his family on vacation, persuading his wife to sleep with him while packing, or helping a guy out of a crater, George Herbert’s best efforts always come up short. They actually could have turned this into a pretty powerful theme with just a little more work, though in a movie like this, it might push the whole thing into the territory of glurge. This low-budget alien invasion movie needs complex symbolism like a hole in the head.
Turns out I haven’t done an IMDb riff yet. A little surprised about that.
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Head a bit further up route 2, and you get to a part of history where I get to rely on research rather than my own wildly inaccurate memories. Jumpers and the Severna Park Mall and Marley Station all loom large in my memories, but it’s been very hard to research them (Researching Marley Station is easy enough because it still exists, but it’s hard to get a historical perspective on it). They weren’t important or historical and they both ceased to exist long before the internet was a thing, and defunct shopping malls of the 1980s doesn’t seem to have caught on as a nexus of internet-age nostalgia.
But as our weird and personal little history draws to a close, we get to intersect some actual history for a moment, because the next thing you’re going to come to, provided you are making this trip about twenty-five years in the past, is the Harundale Mall.
And… I don’t really remember much about it. To me, it was mostly just the sign on the roof that looked like a nineteenth century frontier army fort. I’m only consciously aware of having visited it once. This would have been back in 1987 or 1988, when I first started wearing glasses. My dad took me to the eyeglass place there, New Deal Optical, I think. It was where he’d always gotten his glasses ever since he was a kid (The chain, I assume, not the actual shop, since my dad grew up in Hamilton, and it’d be weird to go all the way to Glen Burnie to buy eyeglasses). I took a pair of frames off the shelf to look at them, possibly try them on, and the clerk yelled at me for being a kid and interacting with the merchandise. My dad got angry at the clerk for this treatment and vowed never to shop there again.If you’ve been reading this column from the beginning, you might notice that I seem to have a lot of stories involving my father getting angry in a mall off of Ritchie Highway. In the interest of defending my father’s reputation, I should explain that the reason I remember these stories is because it was so unusual for my normally mild-mannered father to make a public display of anger. My wife has cautioned me to remember this when I become frustrated in the presence of my own children. Also, I don’t know, it seems like driving up Route 2 tended to put him in a bad mood. I ended up getting my glasses at the Pearle across the street from Marley Station.
When the Harundale Mall opened in October, 1958, (for the first four months, it operated under the name “Arundeltown”, a fact that is missing from all but one of my sources) the only other mall in the US to bear the designation was Minnesota’s Southdale Center. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.
Built by James Rouse’s company, which would go on, rather famously, to build the town of Columbia, it offered around 20 retail spaces and a half-dozen kiosk spots. Parts of the mall had a second floor, but only Hochschild-Kohn had retail there. The rest was used for offices and storage, as well as a rentable public meeting room. It was a small mall by today’s standards, around 300,000 square feet, half of which was taken up by its three largest stores, originally Hochschild-Kohn, G.C. Murphy and S.S. Kresge.
Hochschild-Kohn, which I mentioned very briefly before, was one of the famous Baltimore-regional department stores from the old days. They went defunct in 1983 and the store at Harundale was sold to another Baltimore chain, Hutzler’s. Hutzler’s didn’t last out the ’80s. The mall tried to attract J. C. Penney to replace them, but Penney had a new building constructed at Marley Station instead. The space went to Value City instead. In 2007, the Value City closed, replaced by the Burlington Coat Factory from Jumpers.
G. C. Murphy was a five-and-dime chain. Their Parole location (Actually their discount department store version, “Murphy’s Mart”: commercial Realtor documents still list it as “Murphy’s Mart Shopping Center”. Now a Shoppers or a Kohls. Or maybe both. I don’t remember which end of the building was theirs) has a bunch of little flashbulb-images stored away in my memory, mostly involving the capsule toy machines near the registers, but that’s a story for another day. Murphy’s had survived the Great Depression, but couldn’t survive the ’80s. They got sold to Ames in 1985, who sold the smaller stores to McCrory’s. The G. C. Murphy at Harundale became a McCrory’s in 1990. I don’t know when exactly it closed, but McCrory’s was bankrupt by ’92 and the last of their stores shuttered in ’01.
S. S. Kresge was another five and dime, which seems mildly extravagant to me. You think you’ve never heard of them, but you’re wrong: Kresge is the “K” in “Kmart”. I’m not sure if the Kresge at Harundale was still there when they stopped using their original name in the late ’70s. Maybe they moved to become the Jumpers K-Mart.
The rest of the mall was mostly local chains and non-chains, most of which don’t exist any more. From the list of original tenants, I recognize Lerner, Thom McAn, and Baltimore Gas & Electric. Annapolis radio station WNAV (Fun fact: currently part-owned by Pat Sajak) had a broadcasting booth on the concourse. There was also a grocery store — first Food Fair, later Pantry Pride — and an Italian restaurant with a sunken seating area at the south end.
The court at the north end featured the mall’s architectural centerpiece, a large fountain in the center of which was displayed the Harundale Rock, a dedication stone engraved with the names of the builders, a list of architectural awards, and a brief history of the site. The stairs to the second floor wrapped around the fountain, so you could pitch coins from landing. Next to the fountain was a large birdcage where they kept talking birds, which turned out to be exactly as good an idea as it sounds, and the mall eventually became famous for its profanity-spouting Mynahs.
Harundale’s star had slowly waned over the years. None of the small malls up and down Ritchie Highway had posed serious competition, but the place was showing its age. It wasn’t positioned to survive when Marley Station opened. The well-known, upscale retailers who’d been among the early tenants fell on hard times: Kresge had become Kmart; Murphy was gone; Hochschild-Kohn was gone; Hutzler’s was gone; Oppenheim-Collins was gone; Read’s Drug Store was gone; Equitable Bank had been eaten by Maryland National, then by NationsBank, then Bank of America. Their replacements had been progressively less prestigious: Erol’s TV and Video Club; Record Town; Value City; Dollar Tree, etc. Horn & Horn briefly reenters our narrative, taking over the Severn Room restaurant and turning it into one of their cafeterias.
Kind of strapped for time this week. So here’s an enlargement of one of the thumbnails from last week.
It is February 12, 1990. Carmen Lawrence becomes the first female premier of Western Australia. The Open Skies conference begins in Helsinki between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, establishing rules for unarmed aerial surveillance flights. The treaty will be signed at the end of next month, but won’t come into effect until 2002. Tomorrow, the East German government will head over to Bonn to discuss reunification with the west. They don’t make any concrete headway, since no one really has a lot of faith in the East German government at the moment (They’re only minding the shop until free elections can be held in a few weeks), but this is basically the point where everyone’s resigned themselves to reunification happening, with the French, the British and the Russians having pretty much given up trying to prevent it. Later this week, the UK will restore diplomatic relations with Argentina for the first time since the Falkland Islands invasion in 1982, but relations have remained tense. Wednesday, ten years after completing its primary mission, and just before shutting down its cameras to conserve power, Voyager I looks over its shoulder and snaps a series of 60 images which are stitched together to form the “Family Portrait”, a panorama view of the solar system showing six planets (The others were in bad positions at the time), and including the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away. The 11th Panchen Lama may have been born this week, depending on whether you agree with the Chinese government or with the Dalai Lama.
Yesterday, Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson by knock-out in the ninth round in Tokyo to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. In California, debates rage over the use of the pesticide Malathion to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly. Since last July, a series of medfly infestations had more than doubled the cost of the state’s eradication efforts. The outbreaks were deliberate, ostensibly engineered by an eco-terrorist group to protest the use of the pesticide, which they considered environmentally hazardous. Which, I mean, duh, but actual science did not bear this out at the time. Also, Malathion is what you use to kill medflies, so releasing medflies to stop Malathion seems like a singularly dumb idea. All the same, California will stop aerial spraying next month and start a program of releasing sterilized insects.
Nintendo releases Super Mario Bros. 3 in North America. The Rolling Stones begin their first-ever tour of Japan. MC Hammer releases his album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. Ike Turner is sentences to four years for cocaine. “Opposites Attract” finally puts Paula Abdul at the top of the Hot 100. Chicago, Roxette, Janet Jackson and Milli Vanilli enter the top ten. Tom Petty, Technotronic, and Jody Watley drop off.
MacGyver this week is “The Treasure of Manco”, an episode with a very Scooby-Doo twist at the end (Spoiler: The Inca treasure criminals force Mac to help them find turns out to be an ancient granary). ABC will show the 1985 Romancing the Stone sequel, The Jewel of the Nile this week. Fox will air The Princess Bride. I also notice that at some point we wandered into the window of another of my favorite weird short-lived sitcoms, Grand, an over-the-top soap-opera spoof in the vein of the much more famous Soap. Tom Hanks hosts Saturday Night Live on Saturday, with musical guest Aerosmith performing the Wayne’s World theme. Friday the 13th The Series is “The Long Road Home”, a Scary Redneck Episode involving body-swapping. Angelo Rizacos guest stars.
“A Matter of Perspective” is this week’s Star Trek the Next Generation. Commander Riker is accused of murder on a planet that’s really into CSI-style crime scene reconstructions, so they use the holodeck to reenact the various witness accounts. So basically, TNG does Rashōmon. At least, that’s how I remember it.
This week, we’ve got yet another episode that is pretty solid as a stand-alone piece, but seems a poor fit for the established series. The regulars are largely sidelined and there are elements that don’t tie in sensibly with the greater context. On the other hand, we’ve got a story that is, with a few glaring holes, mostly coherent, a certain believability to the way events unfold, and the “rogue clone” plot that literally everyone has been wanting to happen since the moment they first unveiled the cloning machine back in the premiere. So what’s it all about? Here’s a quick precis:
Two houses, both alike in dignity,
In fair vague town where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
Admittedly, I’m going to indulge in a little wishful thinking on this one, but only because I think my interpretation is so obviously correct. One of the sizable chunks of this episode is a Romeo and Juliet plot. Between two dudes.
That’s not the only thing this episode is about, though. There’s a bunch of other stuff in there, about cartel wars and father-son relationships, and evil government conspiracies and desperation to save one’s own skin. And since this is War of the Worlds, there’s also some stuff with aliens in there too. With this show’s track record, you might expect it to get a little clusterfucky with all that stuff going on, but remarkably, it all hangs together very organically for the most part. This is probably the best episode we’ve had all season in terms of keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time. Not, mind you, that it’s the best story they’ve had so far, but it’s the first episode that’s suggested the writing staff might actually be able to competently handle a complicated plot. More or less.
I do have to keep couching my approval of this episode, though, because there are still points of clumsiness. Weirdly, most of them have to do with the presence of the regulars. To wit, the Blackwood team contributes almost nothing to the plot this week, has very little reason to even be in the episode, and have been inserted with all the grace of the white people in a Godfrey Ho ninja movie. Just about everything that goes wrong in this episode stems from them shoving the plot out of the way to make room for the regulars.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We start out with Malzor, using his cover identity as “Mr. Malcolm”, visiting a Colonel West.
No, wait. Not him. This guy:
West is in charge of “Project Solomon”, which is developing a “med cell”. Nanotechnology had been a field of growing interest in the 1980s, and the use of scanning tunneling microscopes to manipulate individual atoms in 1989 really made the possibility of microscopic robots explode into the public consciousness. War of the Worlds, surprisingly, is one of the first TV shows to use them in an episode. Far as I know, only Star Trek the Next Generation got there sooner, and not by much — biomedical nanotech came up in last September’s “Evolution“. But War of the Worlds is not really interested in the science fiction implications of a new kind of technology. The details of how it works are largely irrelevant to the plot. Even the basic fact that it cures disease is only relevant to two of the players, everyone else being motivated primarily by its monetary value.
Malzor is interested in the macguffin, er, med cell, because the Morthren have contracted a disease which is killing them, messily. And because their technology is organic, it’s infected as well, causing alien snot to drip from the ceiling and the feeding machines (I wonder if this episode was originally meant to fall before “Night Moves”). He’s already made arrangements to trade hyperdrive technology to Colonel West in exchange for the cell, and now demands that West move up the delivery. It’s probably a small thing, but the whole deal with Colonel West doesn’t really hold up to the kind of scrutiny you give these things when you head up to the fridge. On the face of it, it’s weird that the Morthren would go out-of-house for this sort of thing, and weirder that the government would have the wherewithal to develop something like this, given how utterly dysfunctional it had been shown to be previously. But then, only last week, we saw that they were backing the Creche, again, for reasons that never become clear. Weirder still is that West seems eager to trade it for hyperdrive technology. I mean, sure, hyperdrive technology is cool and all, but there’s an abundance of evidence that Earth is not in any fit state to exploit something like that. What exactly would Colonel West do with a hyperdrive? Who is the market for interplanetary travel in a world like this? It’s not like you can just cut bait and move to Mars — an offworld colony would be utterly dependent on Earth, at least for the first few years. The presence of the Morthren here on Earth implies that there probably aren’t any more hospitable worlds in nearby star systems either. The only remotely practical reason I can come up with is to exploit the resources of other planets, but there’s still decades of work between having a hyperdrive and having the infrastructure to strip-mine the asteroid belt, and I see no evidence that setting up infrastructure to do anything is within the power of the government at this point. Even if there were some obvious practical reason, it seems unlikely that such a thing would be Colonel West’s ballywick. Is he the head of the department of Medical And Also Space Travel Research?
Stranger still is the Colonel’s relationship with Malzor. They’re implicitly working together. I think the fact that hyperdrive is on the table implies that West knows what Malzor is. Okay. We’ve seen hints before that the government is tacitly working with the aliens, or at the least, wittingly looking the other way about them. Yet we have absolutely no sense of why this is going on. Sure, there’s the whole “the government is evil and up to no good” thing, but there’s no amount of comic book villianry that really justifies the government allying itself with alien invaders out to wipe out the human race. Well, maybe Joker-levels. But Leah and Dylan are currently playing Lego Batman 3, and even the Joker decides to team up with the heroes to save the Earth in that one. West can’t deliver, though, because the med cell prototype has been stolen. Flashbacks show us a gloved hand unlocking the storage device and retrieving a jar of windex from a research facility which apparently hired the same decorator as the Creche. The thief (who, strangely, gets a name, “Kevin Gray”, despite never actually appearing) destroyed the research before leaving, and was in turn killed himself by whoever took delivery of the cell. Malzor and West engage in some dick-waving about finding the med cell, with Malzor insisting that he’ll take care of it, while West demands that Malzor keep a low profile and let him handle it with a “special team”.
So, you care to guess which special team he has in mind? That’s right. Colonel West, dressed in the same fedora and trenchcoat outfit as the heavies from last week, meets with Suzanne in what I think is the same strip club where Scoggs works, because they are seriously running out of money for sets.
She leads him to the back room, where Blackwood and Kincaid are waiting. They’re obviously reluctant about the whole thing, and Blackwood offers a quick recap of how they’ve been cut off and disavowed by the government. They’re also troubled that he was able to get in touch with them, since only General Wilson would have known — an surprising claim, given that Wilson had disappeared before the team went to ground. West says that his orders come from, “a higher level,” but he won’t say who he’s working for.
With some prodding, he gives them the background on the med cell: it’s, “A sort of micro-robotic doctor,” with potential applications in medicine, botany and biochemical engineering. Those last two might do something to explain why the government is involved here: after last week, I can just about believe that there are factions exploring, in essence, sci-fi technology in a desperate attempt to put the world back together again. He also somehow knows that the med cell will be out of the country after 48 hours.
He’s identified the thief as one of his own security men, which is why West has come to Blackwood and company: they’ve been on the outside long enough that none of his people will know them, but, inexplicably, they still count as being cleared for this sort of thing. Not that this will prove relevant in the slightest, since we’re not going to see them do any investigation of West’s operation at all. Seems pretty ballsy of West to go to the team of alien hunters to help him recover the thing he’s setting up to trade to the aliens. Does he not know Malzor is an alien? How could he not know? What, does he think “Mr. Malcolm” is just some dude who happens to have hyperdrive technology?
But back to that later. Somehow, everyone very quickly figures out approximately where the med cell is. Despite the fact that we’ve had several episodes which touch upon the economy of this dystopia, we’ve somehow never heard before that the gray market of the city is centered around a place called “The Exchange”. It’s a large indoor bazaar that comes off maybe a bit more “Vendor’s room at a Sci-Fi Convention” than “Wretched hive of scum and villainy.” It’s dominated by three gangs, led by “the black guy”, “the Iranian”, and Tao, leader of the Chinese syndicate. Gee, I wonder which of these guys is going to be a major player in the story…
Security at the Exchange is provided by Brock. I think his security force is all white, which might not actually be deliberate, but I’m guessing it is, with the whole point here seeming to be that the Exchange is run along pretty strict racial lines. Brock’s son Gerry is one of the guards on the floor. He nearly gets shanked chasing a pickpocket, but is saved by Bing, Tao’s son. The two have a friendly, easy interaction that screams to me that these two are old friends and almost certainly have at least one alcohol-facilitated night of mutual self-discovery that they feel super awkward about now but privately replay in their minds every night. Or they might actually be straight-up dating, but I’m already stretching believability here. The point is, whether the writers actually realized it or not, these two come off very strongly as starcross’d lovers.
Both boys are dressed down by their respective fathers for the incident. Brock is aggressive and bullying, while Tao is more reserved and… Well, he doesn’t actually say anything about the family honor, but he’s a straightforward enough Old Chinese Guy stereotype that I think it’s safe to assume it was in the shooting script and just got cut for time or something. But both fathers make it clear that they care about their sons in their own respective ways, and mostly are upset out of concern for their safety. Brock yells at Gerry for not waiting for backup, while Tao shames Bing for getting involved in an unnecessary fight. Hey, would you look at that: parallel scene construction. I know, right?
The two boys meet up immediately afterward so that Gerry can make a big deal out of his gratitude and Bing can try to look cool and aloof, and you just know these two are going to make out later. I mean, unless they both die in some avoidable tragedy primarily of their parents’ doing. But what are the odds of that?
Meanwhile, everyone else in the show has worked out that the med cell is at the exchange. Blackwood somehow managed to verify Colonel West’s story, and they’ve identified Brock as the former employer of the dead security guard. Kincaid decides to go undercover at the Exchange to investigate the link to Brock (weird, though, that Brock doesn’t have any connection to the theft of the med cell) while Blackwood and Suzanne take the rest of the day off so that we don’t have to pay them for a day of filming search the guard’s apartment.
Malzor too has realized that the cell is at the Exchange, though he doesn’t say how he worked that out. He visits Brock in his office and contracts him to locate it. When Brock meets him outside for the details, though, Malzor has him kidnapped. Mana worries that the cloning chamber is infected, but Malzor insists that they have no choice. I mean, other than just letting the guy do the job they hired him to do without all this dicking around with clones. Hard to say for sure, but it seems like using her energy to power the cloning process is much harder on Mana than usual, and in the next scene, she’s got a small spot on her cheek. If you weren’t paying attention, you could easily mistake it for a birthmark, but it blossoms into a large black sore by her next scene. Malzor overrides her for the second time in as many minutes when she suggests that they need to do extra tests on the clone to make sure that the infection hasn’t corrupted it. I’m sure nothing will go wrong.