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?