BBC's "The War Of The Worlds" (2019)
James C. Rocks
I have seen several alternative versions of "War of the Worlds" Byron Haskin's 1953 film, "The War of the Worlds" (1953), Jeff Wayne's Musical Version, "War of the Worlds" (1978) and Spielberg's, "The War of the Worlds" (2005). I will be referring to them and, of course, to H G Wells' original book "War of the Worlds" (1897) in order to review Craig Viveiros' "The War of the Worlds" (2019) recently shown on the BBC. The reason I want to approach my review from this perspective is because after the Jeff Wayne version it began to dawn on me what I really wanted from a screen version. I'll deal with each in turn.
From the very first time I saw it, I loved the 1953 version of the film. Set in the fifties, I loved the design of the Martians, their probe, their flying ships, their protective energy "bubbles" that protected them, the daft priest who thought he could teach them the power of god or some such but, most of all, I loved their heat ray. I loved the way it rose from the asteroidal landing craft, tracked round, started to pulse quickly once it found some poor saps to destroy though, of course, the Martians get their comeuppance when they are ultimately defeated by earthly bacteria. Even now it ties with Wayne's musical version for my first place, despite my cringing at its uber-religious ending introduced presumably to satisfy those of a religious nature in the US.
Ever since its release in 1978, I have absolutely loved Jeff Wayne's musical version with the sixth track, "Thunder Child" being a particular high point. I had on vinyl, I now have it on CD, I've seen it performed live and I have the live version also on DVD. Set in its proper Victorian era, it's a wonderful experience and I absolutely love almost every minute of it. I say every minute because there is one bit that I have a slight problem with even though, for many years, I loved that; the ending that I think was introduced later than the first release (not sure). Unlike the rest of the project, that ending is set in the modern day as NASA scientists see a strange green cloud (the same one described in the book) coming from Mars then start to lose contact with a Martian probe, then various tracking stations around the world. My problem, realised when I saw it on stage with my oldest daughter (actually on the way home when she said how much she loved that bit), is that it's rather daft idea since it plays on the idea that the Martian invasion actually happened and that (today) they're coming back. Think about it! If it actually had happened would we really send a probe to Mars? Really? No, as I said to my daughter, of course not! I've had reason to doubt the sanity and intelligence of my fellow humans from time to time but honestly, we're not that stupid! We'd send an [expletive deleted] war fleet. On the plus side that gave me some very good ideas which, with a friend, has become a project we are working on.
Then there was Spielberg's version. When it was released, I could only have high expectations though these were slowly dashed as I heard reports of the film from friends. Not that it's a bad film or anything, it's just Spielberg indulging his alien obsession and the Americans seemingly saving the world again; to be fair, they're not so much saving it as trying to, Spielberg stays true to Wells' vision of the bacteria eventually saving the day. I though the acting in the film (especially Tom Cruise) was excellent as the selfish father (caring only for his family) and he held the screen for the entire movie but, unlike the 1953 version the Martian invasion was treated largely as background; in effect it was an alien disaster movie. There were a number of very cool effects such as where the first Martian war machine bursts from the ground even if I thought the rotating ground was somewhat superfluous. I also liked Dakota Fanning as the main supporting actress appearing completely screwed over by the whole thing as, between hysterical fits, she made it clear that all she wanted was her mother. It will surprise no one who knows me that I had issues with the film, mostly nit-picks such as the Martian war machines possessing shields (I liked their vulnerability in the book) but one major one; I would have preferred the story to have been set in Victorian England (or even something equivalent in the US) because I think the idea of Victorian era soldiers against such high tech as outlined in the original book is a far more interesting proposal.
So, it was with some excitement that I heard that the BBC were making a miniseries of "War of the Worlds" actually set in Victorian England as it had been envisaged by Wells; my god I was looking forward to it, unaware I would be bitterly disappointed.
Clearly the basis of Harness's script is Wells' own book, "The War of the Worlds" (1897) but Harness has updated it for the modern viewer. In my opinion he, in conjunction with Viveiros, did so poorly.
Like the book the story appears wholly based in England, the Home Counties. In a slight departure from the book there are mentions of attacks on other cities across the UK and it is implicit that the world in general is affected. None of that bothers me although there is some humour value in the fact that Wells originally set his story in the Home Counties then goes on to say, "It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind," but I digress. Since the Second World War, it has been widely known that the British Isles, in military terms, might be considered an "island aircraft carrier" and that that was one of the most important factors in keeping the Germans at bay during the Battle of Britain. So, in the BBC version, perhaps Viveiros and Harness recognised that the Martians might consider the British Isles a form of beachhead, separated from the rest of the world and defensible, meaning it might make sense to focus their attack on the British Isles alone.
My real problem is the plot; it's where Viveiros and Harness began to irritate me but, although I wouldn't say the first episode was brilliant, the story started reasonably well. It seems to me that the overall goal of Wells' book was to tell a tale of an alien invasion and their eventual defeat with no real help from mankind, set against the British Empire as it is driven inexorably towards its future collapse. Viveiros and Harness did acknowledge this in their story but bits were missing, important bits, and although it is clear the British Empire exists it is mainly done through arrogant portrayals of the British elite which give little sense of the changes the Empire is undergoing.
However, the first episode had a reasonably good build up to what I hoped would be a "ripping yarn". There were the expected explosions, some action scenes and we had our first glimpse of a superbly organic looking Martian War Machine; it wasn't quite what I had anticipated but it really did look promising. The effects seemed fair, with people being snuffed from existence by the Martian heat ray or suffocated by the black dust and, in later episodes, there is an impaling and someone being eaten or drunk by living Martians. The effects of Victorian London were superb as were the scenes based in a Woking that was then, presumably, just a village. I liked the way the Martian landing spheres levitated, decaying as they disintegrated those nearby, and the effect of the heat rays that were invisible outside of a shimmer effect. Additionally, even if I was staggered at their apparent size, I quite liked the organic look of the Martian War Machines.
The acting was generally good with Amy, the female lead (Eleanor Thomlinson), excellent in the main role even though her co-star, George (Rafe Spall) was quite wet. George's brother, Frederick (Rupert Graves) was strong and light relief was expertly provided by the eccentric Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle). Some directorial aspects were excellent, even if they weren't exactly what I wanted, but others, especially some of the action scenes, were poorer. Amy and George acted out the core romance of the story which, at least to begin with, seemed like something one might normally find in the Victorian era even if it wasn't truly handled in the classical sense one might expect.
I have a vague recollection of the music as being mostly unobtrusive but more insistent at notable points but I have subsequently listened to it on YouTube and found it to be an excellent score, in many ways superior to the program. I would be only too happy to add the soundtrack to my extensive collection. The sound effects seemed to be competently handled if unexceptional.
It is unfortunate, however, that there is far more to criticise about the miniseries than there is to praise.
In the first episode we were introduced to the major characters and newly impacted asteroid on Horsell Common, the spherical asteroid that would soon be revealed to be Martian. The Martian spheres, some six metres in diameter compared to the thirty-yard-wide cylinders described in the book, landed but seemed small. Of course, it's possible the spheres were only a minor component of the landing craft but that was not explained, all we had were the spheres which appeared somewhat unequal to the task of invasion, especially given the huge size of the Martian War Machines. Quite how the Martians managed to pack as many machines as there appeared to be into such small landing craft was a mystery; H G Wells accounted for it with large cylinders, builder machines and, presumably, disassembled War Machines.
Then came the second episode and, "Oh dear!" It was not so much awful as simply not good; clearly things were happening but they almost always appeared to be happening elsewhere. We are treated to scenes of our intrepid heroes running from the Martians, sometimes we would see War Machines in the distance but they were never quite where our heroes were. However, finally we were to be treated to the scene I was most looking forward to, that I imagine most people were looking forward to, the scene where the ironclad, Thunder Child deals with the Martians. I was expecting a really good action scene involving an escaping steamer, a battle between an ironclad and the Martians in which two alien War Machines were lost at the cost of one warship. I was to be disappointed; apart from the usual distant War Machines and a few equally distant warships there was nothing but a few lifeboats and our heroes wading about in the water. In another, equally ridiculous, scene George finds a squad of soldiers only to find the sergeant insists he fight, pushing him to attack a Martian landing sphere ahead of the other professional soldiers; yet when the Martians counter the attack, he is somehow the only survivor. Of course, I understand that stories are rarely told from the point of view of the dead but George acts so stupidly at times you'd seriously wonder if he could fight his way out of a wet paper tissue. I don't remember any character being quite that dumb in Wells' book.
And it didn't get any better in the next episode with any action always seeming to be anywhere but where the camera was pointing. Where the second episode seemed largely on the road and on the beach while the third episode seemed mainly set in a house.
And, throughout all three episodes, there were flash-forwards to a red and dusty world no longer dominated by the Martians. I don't really know what Viveiros and Harness were trying to achieve; no previous film version has done it and the book certainly never suggested anything like it. All I can say for sure is that it rather invaded the narrative flow especially since that's where the story ended or rather didn't end so much as just stop; and, to cap it all, we are only told of the Martians' defeat in hindsight.
And the core romance turns out to be one of the more noticeable problems with the story. Viveiros and Harness attempt to portray those central characters as rebellious and more modern than they would likely have been, pushing their relationship to the fore and the Martians into the background. In some ways it is similar to Spielberg's 2005 film but, where Spielberg handled the personal stuff well, the BBC romance ends up merely pretentious, distracting the viewer from the primary story of invasion, the story one presumes most are watching it for. One example of this stands out as George and Amy, reunited in Woking, are escaping on a horse when Amy spots their dog; George mounts a rescue but the untimely intervention of a Martian War Machine separates the couple while the dog is never seen again which makes the scene poignantly pointless.
I had serious problems with the manner in which the actors were directed since, clearly, they were entirely competent. It was as if someone had tried to overlay modern morality and social concepts onto characters that were clearly Victorian or Edwardian with Amy & George being rebelliously unmarried. It was modern, it was boring and it was, quite frankly, pretentious. Perhaps the worst aspect was the way transient characters would appear without any form of introduction or explanation, their only purpose seeming to be to be killed at a later juncture, the young girl that accompanies our heroes after being rescued from the beach being the perfect example.
As mentioned above, some of the effects were good but others were poorly designed, for example the way the tripodal Martians and their machines moved, particularly when they did so slowly; in the book, though described otherwise, the War Machines were more like armoured suits, arguably the first to be included in science fiction. Think I'm wrong? The design of the Martian machines in both films and series always had the heat rays as part of the machine; in effect tanks on legs (or hoverying in the 1953 film). If you listen to Jeff Wayne's musical and/or read the book, you'll note that the Martians brandish their heat rays above the them, "and one of them raised the camera-like generator of the Heat-Ray." Suits, not vehicles; but again, I digress.
Anyone with an appreciation of balance will appreciate that movement is more complicated for three legs than four, which is probably why Earthly evolution has favoured the latter. In the third episode, we finally get to see a "real" Martian, one of the creatures that inhabit and control the War Machines; low, flat and of course tripedal. During that episode, a pair of them advance slowly on our heroes and that, in real terms, is something of a problem; how when gravity would be an issue? How exactly does a natively three-legged creature advance slowly towards its prey and not fall flat on whatever passes for its face? The War Machines are subject to the same issue because, although they move faster, they don't move fast enough to overcome the problem at least without demonstrating significant instability. In his book, Wells seemed to recognise the issue when he described the War Machines as, "striding hurriedly towards the river. Little cowled figures they seemed at first, going with a rolling motion and as fast as flying birds." - sadly Viveiros and Harness did not. Wells includes a number of other vague references to the speed of the War Machines in his book, telling us they weren't slow yet, in the miniseries (and, to be fair, most other visual interpretations), they almost always seem to be slow.
Historically, I have always found fault with nearly every version of the book I have seen or heard, regarding Wayne's musical version as far and away the most faithful. Mostly my problems have centred around the stories being modernised; I have long felt that a tale of highly technological invaders set against early nineteenth century soldiers was a much more interesting proposition. So, ever since it was announced more than a year ago, I had been anticipating the new BBC "War of the Worlds". At long last I felt there was actually going to be a televisual version of "The War of the Worlds" that would truly honour Wells' vision and show his story as it should have been seen. I was more-or-less expecting the book on screen, something for the screen similar to Jeff Wayne's musical extravaganza.
Viveiros and Harness failed; however, that's not necessarily a bad thing since I have seen adaptations that stand up well as stories that are merely "based on" their original source. I have read the book many times and where Viveiros and Harness delved into the area of suspense, there was very little; unless, of course, you include the idle curiosity of watching the miniseries' creative team deviate from the original material to reduce the story’s cohesiveness and give it less of an impact. Ultimately, Viveiros and Harness presented us with a tale that was more romance than the horrific alien invasion described in Wells' book; even more sadly, that romance was butchered and inappropriately characterised.
All in all, I was bitterly disappointed and, in story terms, I regard the miniseries mostly as a wasted opportunity.
The BBC's "The War of The Worlds" is a TV miniseries made in three hour-long segments; it was directed by Craig Viveiros, adapted for the screen by Peter Harness and broadcast on BBC in November 2019.