Aliens invaded. For no especial reason other than “Because otherwise this movie wouldn’t keep happening,” four randos have decided that where the US military has completely failed, they can succeed by blowing up alien tripods with home-made bombs.
Anyway, Anders’s plan is for Marissa to wave a flare at a tripod that’s just milling around in the desert, and get it to chase her over some explosives they’re improvised. Marissa vlogs the lead-up, in which she alternates between panicked insistence that she can’t do it and panicked insistence that she can, but the plan goes off. Later, Marissa vlogs about the experience, and gives the strange tidbit that she got a strange sense from the tripod that it was looking at her with regret. Another strange and tantalizing detail here, the possibility that the aliens don’t actually want to do this, and are acting out of desperation. But as with everything else in this movie, it comes out of nowhere, goes nowhere, and is inserted randomly at an awkward point later in the film. where it doesn’t really fit. Only after the tripod is down, Anders notices another tripod in the distance, and they’re forced to flee. Anders and Marissa escape, but Sera, Roger and Eyebrows get vacuumed up in order to provide motivation for the final act, where they liberate the prison camp in Paradise City.
“The United States government is urging every citizen to protect themselves. Every man, woman and child is now responsible for their own safety. If you have a firearm, you need to use it,” says a news broadcast as we see groups of random people walking down a random street carrying weapons. Nope, no idea who they are. Nope, won’t become relevant later.
Our remaining heroes do a lock-and-load montage and approach the city. Seeing an alien structure in the distance, they have a nigh-incoherent conversation:
Anders: What’s that? Looks like an oil refinery.
Marissa: It’s not pretty. I don’t like it
Anders: There’s not going to be anything left.
Marissa: Way to think positive.
Anders: Under the circumstances, we’ll have to see, won’t we?
While Anders is setting up, Marissa records another vlog and is interrupted by one of the many armed civilians freely wandering the streets in this alien-occupied city. He looks like the world’s cheapest Bradley Cooper knock-off. His name is Rennick, as Anders will later somehow know despite never having met him. Also, fun fact, “rennick” is apparently slang for anal sex. What the everloving fuck is even happening in this movie? The scene is nonsensical and contributes nothing. He assumes she’s with another “company”, implying that there’s an organized resistance, but has no objection when she tells him, roughly, that she’s on her own and has brought a bunch of bombs. He tells her that his group is also planning to blow the place up, though he doesn’t take any issue when she demands that he wait because she’s got “people down there.”
Not-Bradley Cooper is more interested in her vlogging. He offers to take her back to, I guess, his leadership to get some more information about the defenses around the prison camp, but he gets vacuumed up by the aliens around the first corner, which is weird given that they keep cutting to really large groups of people walking around freely. Though they completely vanish now. Once again, it goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing.
Anders returns and blows up their car to distract the prison camp guards. The prison proper consists of a wrought iron fence with the gate chained shut. I love the basic insanity of this. Ordinary chain. Ordinary lock. Ordinary fence. The tripods don’t have hands and the aliens themselves are ridiculously physically unwieldy, I can’t even begin to imagine them ushering people into this fenced-in area and then closing and chaining the gate.
They’re reunited with Bradley Cooper, Roger and Eyebrows, but Sera has been taken to a “black temple” nearby. Anders blows up the chain on the gate and Marissa blows up… Something off-screen. Eyebrows and Marissa scream at each other for a few seconds over the fact that they’re ditching her with Bradley Cooper while they go rescue Sera.
The rescue consists of walking down a long, dark, greenscreen tunnel with no context until they find an alien who is in the process of eating Sera. Or rather, in the process of pulling her into the slimy sheet vinyl curtain that is meant to represent its mouth.
Probably meant to be some kind of cephalopod-ish thing. Reminds me a lot of The Crawling Eye. Anders compares it to the sorts of dates Roger brings home. I think it is meant to be very large, but I can’t tell because you never see it on-screen with anything else to give scale.
They shoot at the ceiling, though, and this seems to stun it or something, causing a contextless shot of a grody alien, uh, thingy… retracting. Probably a blood-sucking proboscis, sure, but without context, I am going to assume that being shot caused this alien to lose its erection.
They pull Sera free of the alien. Her pants are torn, her legs are covered in gunge, and she needs help walking for the rest of the film, but there’s no visible injuries. Marissa decides that she needs a Badass scene, so she says, “So I guess this is where I’m supposed to ask you where your from and what you want. But honestly, I don’t care. Come on guys, let’s kill this bitch!” This time, they shoot at chest-level until its eyeball retracts, which I guess means that it’s dying.
The pick up the still-angry Eyebrows, and Marissa gleefully tells Bradley Cooper that they’re “just getting started.” She’s gone full-on ’80s action movie star now, lovingly caressing her gun as the gang sets off from the exploding refinery, and lustfully smiling as she proposes that they find another alien nest and kill the fuck out of them.
Day nine ends with a repeat of the news report telling everyone to defend themselves. Paradise City goes up in a mushroom cloud on day ten. The film ends on a vlog from a dead-eyed Marissa, urging viewers to fight back and form a resistance. “They can leave, or they can die,” she asserts as a BCC news chyron appears under her grainy video declaring her “The voice of the resistance”.
Sequel hook? Maybe. IMDb claims there was a sequel in 2014 called Dawn of Destruction, but I’ve seen no evidence of this movie actually existing. The only references to it I can find suggest that Dawn of Destruction is actually just the French Canadian DVD release of Alien Dawn.
This movie is bad, but not painful. I’ve seen it compared (unfavorably) to Cloverfield, but I’m going to stick with The Blair Witch Project. My gut tells me that the actual dialogue was at least partially improvised, with the script only giving a basic outline of events. If not, then boy howdy does Neil Johnson need a script editor, because this dialogue barely sounds like English.
Elements which seem like they ought to be important, like the red weed, or Marissa’s observation of the alien sense of “regret” are just shoehorned in at random, as though they only thought to include them after the fact and characters vacillate back and forth at random in their attitudes and plans. The emotional beats are all over the place, going from fear to grim desperation to gallows humor to dark action bon mot-spouting attempts at badassery, and it comes off not as character development but as the writer hedging. You might just about be able to imagine that this is some kind of artistic stance. Like Dogme 95 or, maybe even closer, Scott Shaw’s Zen Filmmaking. An attempt to make the movie more “realistic” by eschewing the conventions of normal storytelling on the assumption that real life doesn’t follow a tight Aristotelian plot structure of rising action, climax, and falling action and real people babble and contradict themselves and make mistakes.
The only thing that really grates is the complete failure to actually earn the character development. Sera’s the only major character to ever face actual immediate physical peril from an alien, and we don’t have time for her to react to it on any major level. That last bit of Marissa giving her gun a handjob would be creepy either way, but if she’d ever had an actual close call — something on the level of the farmhouse scene in the 1953 movie or the scene with the Curate in the other adaptations — at least there would be some rhyme or reason to why she’s suddenly gone all Charles Bronson. What has Marissa done to earn her sudden level in badass? She’s had a shockingly easy time of things in this movie. She finds shelter and companionship almost immediately, never gets injured or captured, lucks into meeting a pair of men who are happy to defend her, escapes the city before it’s destroyed, and the only time she’s in physical proximity to an alien, she’s armed and it just sits there and lets her shoot it.
The weird attempt at a deeper message, if that is indeed what’s there, also points to this being a misguided attempt at an art film. The provocative message that terrorism “isn’t always a bad thing” and the odd juxtaposition of naming a hero after a pair of mass murderers definitely have an, “Ooh, look at how transgressive I am as an avant garde filmmaker” vibe.
At the same time, though, there’s something very mainstream Hollywood in its final scenes, when they give way to a sort of Red Dawn-style romanticization of the resistance, with Marissa suddenly tossing off one-liners and looking like she wants to bang her rifle, and a militia magically showing up for a few contextless scenes of people we’ve never seen before shooting at things we can’t see. In light of how direct they’ve made the parallels with real-world insurrectionists, it should feel tasteless to move from the resistance being a desperate, last-ditch effort by people who assume their lives to already be forfeit, to the resistance being Cool Action Heroes Kicking Ass and Taking Names.
Ironically, it’s the fact that the movie is half-assed and inconsequential that is its saving grace. If it had the follow-through to really draw out and make explicit the themes it hints at, I think this movie would be utterly insufferable. Using an alien invasion of the US as a parallel for, say, the US invasion of Iraq is intriguing as a concept, but what are you going to do with it? The options seem to be to either descend into a kind of kid’s show “See! See how awful we are! Shame on you and your kind for killing Bambi’s mother!”, or else the unspeakable bad taste of devolving into apologia for terrorism. Alien Dawn evades the worst of it by simply being there and gone again faster than you can develop any sort of investment in the concept.
That it is sloppy prevents it from being really good, but let’s face it: “good” wasn’t on the table to begin with. That same sloppiness stops you from ever taking the movie seriously enough to get upset with it. I mean, what, I’m going to get mad at this movie for the terrorism thing after they have someone mistake bleach for water long enough to drink a whole gallon of it?
I said before that there are some parallels to War of the Worlds: Goliath. That movie, too, is primarily about humans fighting back against the invasion. And it also draws heavily from parallels to real-world events. Not the Iraq war, but rather World War I.
And though Goliath is far, far better in just about every way imaginable, it also suffers from a form of the biggest problem to plague Alien Dawn, in that its plot isn’t very cohesive as a whole. Goliath tries to tell a story that’s far too big for the scope of the movie it’s in. I said at the time that it feels like an abridgment: not one coherent story, but a clip show summarizing some of the major events of an entire season of a TV show. But at least there’s enough there for a sense of progress. They might have needed to cut out most of the story, but you get a sense of what those missing parts would have been like.
If Goliath feels like a clip show, Alien Dawn feels like sweepings off the cutting room floor. That haven’t necessarily been assembled in the right order. If we’re supposed to be watching Marissa transform from a scared survivor to a bold insurgent, we don’t see that. We see her be one at times, and the other at times, but there’s never any sense of progress to the transformation. Worse than that, rather than going from one to the other through intermediate stages, she simply flips back and forth at random, sometimes bold and enjoying her new role with the resistance, only to suddenly panic and declare the plan untenable.
There’s no pattern, there’s no reason. At the end of this movie, I found myself eighty minutes older, but I hadn’t really gained anything. I didn’t feel cheated of my time, to be sure, but I wasn’t happy about it either. It was just a thing that happened.
It does make me wonder, though. What is it that actually makes this an adaptation of War of the Worlds? Obviously, it doesn’t use the name. It isn’t structured like the novel: there’s little to no “Just wander around explaining the technical details of aliens for the benefit of the audience,” but it’s hardly the only adaptation like that. The aliens seem far less “invincible” than in most adaptations: a camera-friendly ragtag group of rebels are able to take out tripods. It’s very much in keeping with the powerful and deliberate parallels to the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, with the invaders depicted as vastly more powerful than the defenders, but it’s an earthly sort of superiority rather than something more science-fictiony. The aliens come off far more vulnerable than even in the original story, where they could be dealt a palpable blow only by the most advanced and organized military forces of the British Empire. And then there’s the fact that the central thrust of the movie is humans successfully fighting back. That’s ultimately the biggest sin against the source material. There’s nothing here about the aliens succumbing to the littlest thing that God in his wisdom put upon the earth, and everything about some of man’s defenses succeeding.
In fact, this movie revels in the whole “taking the fight to them” thing far more than the handful of adaptations we’ve seen so far which do feature humanity fighting back, except perhaps Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Goliath and the second Asylum film both showcase humanity playing out the Artilleryman’s fantasy of turning the aliens’ own weapons against them, but they don’t glamorize the resistance to the same extent: even with improved technology, the humans are still outclassed, take heavy losses, and their victories are tighter.
And yet, it’s not as though there’s any cause to doubt that this is indeed an adaptation of the Wells story. On some levels, it’s a closer adaptation than the 1953 movie: it’s got actual tripods, the aliens harvest humans for food, and even the red weed makes an appearance. But this is largely superficial. It is an adaptation on the level of images and signifiers. And sound effects. If I were to question Alien Dawn‘s legitimacy as an adaptation of War of the Worlds, why wouldn’t I question the legitimacy of George Pal’s version?
Which makes you wonder, just how far from the source material can you go and still be an adaptation at all?
- Alien Dawn is gettable from amazon.