|H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (2005)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 08 June 2005|
Now that H.G. Wells’ famous 1898 novel The War of the Worlds has entered public domain, and there’s a heavily-publicized, very expensive new movie version from Steven Spielberg, there are now several movie versions to choose from. In addition to the Spielberg version, titled “War of the Worlds,” there is, of course, the 1953 version, “The War of the Worlds,” already out on DVD, but due to be reissued in a extras-laden DVD in November. Then there’s a minor movie called “Invasion” while in production, but which hastily became “H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds” just before its release on DVD. A CGI-animated feature based on Jeff Wayne’s 1975 musical version—heretofore only a recording (but featuring Richard Burton)—is due for release in 2006 or 2007. (Note that the titles vary slightly, probably for legal reasons.)
All of these take liberties, large and small, with Wells’ fine novel, in which he created the science-fiction concept of invading aliens. (Wells also invented—in a science fiction sense—time travel, anti-gravity, television, invisibility and many other basic SF concepts.) But up in Seattle, the ambitious Timothy Hines filmed this straight-to-video release, “H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.” Hines inaugurated the project, and has a website devoted to the film. He directed the movie and co-wrote it with Susan Goforth, basing it all too faithfully on the Wells novel.
Hines deserves praise for tackling such a difficult project on what must have been an extremely low budget, but the result is almost an anti-movie. His dogged faithfulness to his source (though he does take a few liberties) has resulted in a woefully long movie (three hours!) with a slow, ponderous pace and many scenes that should have been dropped. A movie is not, after all, a novel, and what works in a book does not necessarily work on screen—again and again Hines demonstrates this truism all too clearly.
But it’s a vanity project, and based on his scant interviews, Hines is a vain man. Not a word about this movie has appeared so far in any of the movie trade magazines; genre magazines like Starlog haven’t mentioned it either. Hines seems to think any efforts along those lines would have been crushed by Paramount, DreamWorks and/or Steven Spielberg. But he’s probably on solid legal ground, and anyway his film does not provide actual competition to the Spielberg movie. No one is likely to confuse one for the other.
The story is simple and straightforward: an unnamed protagonist (Anthony Plana) lives near where what at first seems to be a meteor plummets to Earth. When he and curious villagers gather around it, the top begins to unscrew. Eventually, towering war machines, powered by octopus-like invaders from Mars, emerge; more cylinders fall (only on England) and the Martians begin wiping out all human resistance. The hero—a writer in this movie—desperately searches southern England for his wife. He occasionally tells us of the adventures of his equally unnamed brother (also Plana) in London.
As a director, Hines is a hopeless amateur. Individual scenes have no shape, no content; the editing of scenes is so haphazard that it’s often difficult to tell what’s going on, who’s where and what’s what. The film is suffused with a yellow tint, either because of the clichéd concept that “the past is golden,” or because the format used simply resulted in a yellow tone. In any event, it’s tiresome.
So is the absolutely unceasing score. The title music is well-orchestrated, but the ponderous score for the film itself sounds completely synthetic. Hines has no concept of creating tension or gaining other results by using no music at all; the whole thing is drenched in a thick coat of mediocre music, slowing down an already plodding movie.
He also includes long, slow scenes of the protagonist walking here and there; they all look the same, and all seem to be taking place on the same hilly, woodsy location—which looks just like the Pacific Northwest, and very little like England. There’s not even one hedgerow, one of the most prominent and location-establishing features of the English countryside.
Strangely, though working in a Western state, Hines was clearly unable to turn up horses capable of pulling wagons. There’s one shot of a pony in harness, but not a single shot of a carriage—and there are many carriages—being pulled by a live horse. From time to time, in very long shots, he includes CGI horses, which are extremely unconvincing.
So is all the other CG in the movie, although the spider-like “handling machines” work fairly well on a home-computer level. The war machines, which should be awesome and thrilling (and which are in the 1953 and Spielberg movies), look like half of a spindly chrome mosquito. There’s no sense of them interacting with the actors or landscape; they seem pasted on. The big battle between several of the war machines and a Naval vessel, a highlight of the novel, is reduced to an incomplete-looking boat badly inserted into live action shots taking on the almost as unconvincing war machines. What should have been a landmark scene is reduced to an amateurish fumble.
Wells’ Martians had two principal weapons: the devastating heat ray and a poisonous, thick black smoke. In another demonstration of his failing to understand the different requirements of a novel and a movie, as in Wells’ book Hines keeps the heat ray absolutely invisible, effectively reducing its potential as drama. It doesn’t help that his actors stand stock still, waving their arms, covered in CGI fire; then they’re replaced by CGI skeletons, also flailing about. The black smoke doesn’t even come close to passing muster; Hines seems to have realized this, as he rarely uses it.
There’s also a red weed that the Martians brought with them, accidentally or deliberately. In the novel, it’s similar to cactus, but here it is rendered solely as very badly-matted CG artwork—and no one ever mentions the red weed at all.
The acting is variable, usually of a college-drama-class level. Plana is a little better, but is required to play his protagonist character in a high emotional pitch in almost every scene. His role as the brother is more convincing—but the Seattle buildings he walks by look very little like London. James Lathrop is reasonably good as the young artilleryman the protagonist meets, but John Kaufmann as the frightened, cowardly curate is completely unconvincing, as is Darlene Sellers as Mrs. Elphinstone. Some of the British accents are okay, even though at times they seem misplaced—Cockney accents in the countryside, for example. But others—well, it’s lower-case college theater time again. The movie has a huge cast, even with several performers doubling (or tripling) up on roles.
The movie’s highly variable (but mostly awful) effects indicate the movie may have been rushed into release to get out there prior to the Spielberg extravaganza. The long, long running time is exhausting; you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din, if you can get through it in one sitting. Had he allowed himself more time and given more thought to the requirements of a movie, Hines could very well have turned out something worthwhile. But since he refused to accept the concept that just because something was in the novel is not sufficient reason to include it in the movie, because he had no help by Hollywood pros on any level, he’s doomed his own movie by sheer arrogance.
On the one hand, it’s pointless to beat up on a helpless little movie like this one, and certainly Hines deserves congratulations for trying to bring to the screen precisely what Wells wrote. But Wells himself was a shrewd, occasionally pragmatic man, and based on his own movie adaptation (“Things to Come”), it’s unlikely that he would have approved this homely, unconscionably long project. It’s a work of courage, but it’s also dismayingly misguided.