Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
Three Months Later
Pete, the Major, Victoria and Alex enjoy a delicious picnic dinner outside of George’s house. Judging by the number of mason jars on the table, the entire meal seems to have consisted of pickles. Everyone’s in good spirits, except for Alex, who’s glum because he misses his dad. Oh noes, I guess this means that George didn’t make it due to that fatal illness he was dying of in the previous scene.
I mean, come on. Did they really expect anyone to believe that for a second? They’re at his house. If George had died, do you really think everyone would have driven the three hours to his house three months later to have a picnic? Honestly, the scene doesn’t make a whole lot of sense even with George alive. Why are they here and not at the base? George had been considering moving to the base before the invasion anyway so that Alex could have some company. With George out of the picture for three months, what, has Alex been living alone? Did Pete move in? Do they all stop by for a picnic once a week?
The reveal that we all knew was coming happens when Dave shows up with George, who’s still pretty fragile, but is recovering. See, it would almost make sense for them to all come out to George’s place if this was specifically a party to celebrate his homecoming after three months in the hospital. But it’s a surprise that George is ambulatory. Alex wasn’t expecting it, and it doesn’t seem like the others were either. With George still looking pretty fragile, it also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that they’d drive him all the way out here, presumably with the intention of leaving him there in Alex’s care — he’s clearly not fit to take care of himself yet. This scene would make a lot more sense set at the base. And if you don’t know that this is George’s homecoming, isn’t it a little weird for this particular collection of people to be here for a random picnic three months later? The thing that unites these characters is that they’re the named characters in this movie. Major Kramer had a preexisting relationship with George and Alex, but Victoria only met George briefly for one scene, and she’d never met Alex. Pete doesn’t seem to know any of the others, and their banter over lunch suggests that they’re still only casual acquaintances. There’s nothing per se wrong with this group of people being here, but why them specifically? Why aren’t any of the other pilots there? Or any of the other scientists from the base? Or the other rescued survivors from the mothership? Why? Because the budget won’t cover it. This scene is a mess. It’s here for tone, not for plot.
The gang celebrates George’s homecoming by turning on the radio (Does it seem weird to anyone else that there’s still regular radio service playing music after the apocalypse?). But everyone falls silent for a few moments and ends the film in quiet trepidation when the music gives way to the same distinctive pattern of interference that harbinged the second wave. We end the movie with a scene like so many others in this movie: watching people react to things the film can’t show us.
This movie is bad. On a technical, structural level, it’s considerably worse than the first one. In strict terms of filmmaking and direction, though, I guess it’s not a complete disaster. Some of the CGI is just about passable, the only really painful parts are the aerial battles.
The most obvious “This is a low-budget movie” stuff ironically is the more mundane things. The repeated use of reaction shots to replace reveals, not because they can’t show us an alien or a space ship — those, they can do. But a truck with an empty engine compartment? You can’t CGI-out the engine on the Craft Service Guy’s truck you’re borrowing. Or the fact that the city where George meets Pete on Earth is obviously the same one as the Earth habitat on Mars. Or that the torn-up pavement when Kramer crashes is actually some road work already in progress.
The plot feels like it’s falling down a flight of stairs. But, kinda as I predicted last time, War of the Worlds 2 is a more enjoyably bad film for it. But it’s still not a properly So-Bad-It’s-Good film. More of an Interesting Failure. It doesn’t, as I noted before, feel like the movie that they ended up with is at all what they were shooting for. It feels like something went wrong while they were making it.
If the movie were merely incompetent, you’d expect the climax to devolve into just complete incoherence and dei ex machinis. But what actually happens is that they round up all these disparate pieces from earlier in the movie and make them fit together. Yet, it doesn’t feel organic. At no point do you feel like all those pieces were building to something. Instead, it feels like they started with the solution they wanted, then went back afterward and shoehorned all the pieces in so they’d be ready. Why does Dave show his sick colleague to George? So George will know that you can make an alien-killing super-virus by shooting yourself up with a bunch of diseases. Why does Victoria show him the Squid Walker’s “brain”? So he knows where to find it when he’s on the mothership. Why does he give Alex his watch? So he can use the alarm to find him later. I wonder if there was some cut bit in that climactic scene that would have justified the brief interlude where George has to barter for gasoline.
You know what it feels like? It feels like an old Sierra adventure game. People go through the movie doing things for no good reason, not because they make sense at the time, but because an hour later, you’re going to get to a puzzle that is only solvable if you remembered to pick up the spinach dip in the first scene and used some tape to lift a bit of fur from a cat you can make into a fake moustache (The cat-moustache-fake-ID puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3 gets more flak than I think it really deserves. It’s actually one of the more sensible puzzles in a Sierra game. Quick precis: you need to pass for someone whose ID you’ve stolen. You can’t deface his ID enough to make it look like you, and you can’t disguise yourself enough to look like him, but if you do both, by donning a fake moustache and scribbling one on the ID in marker, you can sorta meet in the middle).
The more I think about it, the more I find myself thinking this might have actually worked comparatively well as one of those mid-’90s Full Motion Video adventure games. The production values are more-or-less in line, and the jumble of a plot is very much in keeping with the narrative game trope of constructing a story around the possibility of players encountering it in many different orders.
Without the artifice of a video game’s structure, though, it’s hard to make this movie hold up. Nothing makes any damned sense at the macro scale. There’s no sense of strategy to the alien invasion plan. They open a “Time Hole” in orbit four days before they bother to show up. A whole day passes between a walker randomly happening upon George’s house and the entire fleet arriving and prompting a military response. Then the mothership and apparently the whole fleet bugger off back to Mars without seeming to have accomplished anything. Why?
For that matter, the aliens are still doing human experimentation because they haven’t perfected the filtration process… So why bother to invade now? Is it just a matter of “They’re desperate enough for blood that they’re willing to take the risk with a 75% solution”? Would be nice to convey this in some manner.
And even if you can get past the way the plot stumbles drunkenly along, another big misstep for the movie is that it makes the alien invasion feel distinctly intimate. Aside from two short VFX sequences of tripods in London and Paris, there’s no sense of this invasion as being a thing which is happening to the world. It’s entirely common for an alien invasion movie to inadvertently give the impression that the invasion of Earth is a thing that happens primarily to the United States (Except in Doctor Who, where invasions happen primarily to London and its suburbs) — even the original War of the Worlds novel is vague on whether the invasion goes past Britain. But this goes a step past that. We only see five people get tele-zapped by the aliens, and two of them are George. Pete mentions a “whole gang” of survivors on Mars, but we only see a brief flash of one guy. Other than the main characters, the only victims we ever see are the two nameless characters in the Squid Walker with George, one of the soldiers at the base, and a small crowd on Mars. The armada that attacks Earth shoots past the fighters with only minimal engagement but never seems to actually arrive at any sort of target. We only see two Squid Walkers actually land on Earth (excluding the London and Paris CGI shots), both in nigh-unpopulated places. If it’s meant to be impressive when George rails about not caring about the larger war and only wanting to rescue his son, the impact is blunted by the fact that the war hardly seems to affect anyone other than George and his son.
For all the junk that’s been shoveled into this movie, it seems strangely vacant. The battle to save humanity — even the battle to save Alex Herbert — feel somehow low-stakes. The major warns his pilots that many of them won’t be coming back, but I’ll be damned if I remember seeing any of them actually die. The aliens just don’t seem that threatening: our main character gets zapped by them twice. On purpose. We only see people fleeing from Squid Walkers once at the very beginning, and it turns out those people were already prisoners of the Martians. Even in the big long interminable aerial battle scenes, the fighters are deliberately trying not to engage the aliens, saving their weapons for the mothership (Also, note, the fighters don’t actually accomplish anything with their plague missiles. Their only contribution is accidental: they show up to give George and company a ride home). The closest things ever get to properly tense is the two “Don’t touch the walls” maze scenes, with people making their way out of an alien ship. And, I mean, “make your way through a stationary maze without touching the walls” does not exactly scream “Adventure!”. There’s never any significant sense of the human characters fighting the aliens: there’s no discrete aliens for them to fight. No one to chase them through the maze. Rarely any sense of the aliens being actively aware of the humans at all. They don’t come off as antagonists so much as a kind of obstacle. And not even an active obstacle like an earthquake or a hurricane in a disaster movie: a stationary obstacle. The big climactic moment when George delivers the death-blow to end the second invasion? He sticks a needle into an inanimate lump. If this were an Indiana Jones movie, the aliens wouldn’t be the Nazis so much as that room where you have to remember that “Jehova” starts with an “I” in Latin to not fall through the floor.
By itself, this isn’t necessarily incompatible with War of the Worlds as a whole. Far too light on presenting the aliens as a threat, but the lack of direct, face-to-face confrontation is consistent with the book and the larger adaptive tradition. But there’s nothing to replace it, either. The first movie did a great job of slowly building up George’s growing solitude and desperation. This movie lacks anything like that. It also did a lot to depict the collapse of society under wartime conditions, which, again, bizarrely, has no parallel. George as a crying-and-screaming fit when Alex is taken, but it only lasts a minute. Sissy shows signs of PTSD, but she’s only in the movie for a few minutes. There isn’t even any conflict between the characters. Pete is mildly rude in the face of George’s determination for about five seconds, then just apologizes and is his loyal sidekick the rest of the time. No one ever argues, tries to deny the evidence, or even disagrees about strategy. They don’t even angst about strategy. Dave and Victoria never show any fear that their plans won’t work. There’s no scene where someone suggests that the Major’s desire to engage the aliens directly is misguided. Everyone just gets along. The closest thing there is to an antagonist in the whole movie are the rednecks who overcharge George for gas.
It all adds up to — It doesn’t add up to anything, really. That’s why this movie sucks. It’s a bunch of disparate bits thrown in with so little consideration for structure and coherence that it can’t build up into something. There is a story, but not really a plot: you list off the things that happen in this movie in order, but you’re not describing a plot because you’re not describing a connected series of events which build logically one upon the next into rising action that results in a climax. It’s not even hollow spectacle like so many other movies that get eleventh-hour-rewritten into “Just throwing shit at the screen and hoping for the best” because there’s no spectacle.
Heck, the climax of this movie is very similar to that of the first one. Remember how in that movie, George shoots up an alien tentacle with rabies vaccine? It’s vague how closely that was linked to the aliens’ ultimate defeat (as I mentioned, I prefer to interpret it as not causal but indicative: meant to alert the audience to the plausibility of disease affecting the aliens), but it’s nonetheless the major turning point of the piece, the first point where the aliens are depicted as anything other than distant and intractable.
But compare how the two scenes play out. In the first, George leaps into impulsive action to save the Pastor when he’s being directly attacked by an alien tentacle. He struggles with it, and once he injects it, it wigs out and “runs away”. But in this movie, George just sneaks up to a stationary lump of alien brain-meat and stabs it. There’s no tension in the scene: George has already rescued his son, and the alien ship isn’t reacting to them in any way, so there’s no sense that he’s even taking a risk by making a direct attack. It’s the climax, but it’s not climactic. And what reaction do we get afterward? A bit of shaky-cam. A few squid-walkers falling down. There’s a fireball when the fighters take off, but we don’t even see where it’s coming from. We don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the mothership explode, and we don’t get a big montage of alien craft collapsing all over the world, nor anything like the catharsis of the previous movie (lifted straight from the book) where the desperate George throws himself in the path of an alien begging for death, only to find the alien inert.
Where there are hints of actual stuff happening — whether it’s big exciting spectacular stuff like an alien armada raining down death on cities and refugee camps, or something more personal and intimate like Sissy being broken by the loss of her family and her treatment by the aliens, or Pete’s trauma after his family and his unit are lost, or George and Alex’s grief over the death of Felicity — it’s all off-screen. It can be mentioned in passing, but we don’t have time to dwell on anything, really, because we’ve got a whole lot more disconnected junk to shovel at the screen.
If The Asylum’s first War of the Worlds was confused about what kind of movie it was supposed to be, the second is just confused period. I mean, seriously, who thought it was a good idea to make a sequel to a (moderately) successful alien invasion film that completely discards the emotional center of the first one, and instead just throws a jumbled mess of disjointed plot points and characters, none of which we stick with long enough to care about, whose attempts at spectacular scenes of alien-fighting and destruction are just weightless, CGI clusterfucks, and whose resolution is essentially just a redo of the previous movie? How could anyone think this was a good idea?
- War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave is available from Amazon.