H.G. Wells

Review: The War of the Worlds

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Review: The War of the Worlds
For a time I believed that mankind had been swept out of existence, and that I stood there alone, the last man left alive.

It’s October, and that means a whole month of scary-book reviews! First up is H.G. Wells’s 1897 classic The War of the Worlds, and…what? Okay, I know it’s technically a science fiction book. In some ways it’s the science fiction book, one of the earliest alien invasion novels, spawning dozens of adaptations in several different media, even inspiring inventions that would eventually take mankind to the moon.

It’s also a horrifying story in places, with tentacled-aliens raining down death and destruction in several unsettlingly imaginative ways. And let’s not forget that one of the adaptations – a radio play that aired in 1938 – convinced people that a real invasion was underway, causing widespread panic in the streets. I think that puts this comfortably in the “scary” category, don’t you?

Read On

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War of the Worlds (2005)

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For his entire career, Spielberg has been slowly evolving from a purveyor of pure popcorn into a sophisticated filmmaker. His popularity is merely a cunning façade for his connsumate skills – I mean, if he’s any good, why would so many people like it, right? With War of the Worlds, Spielberg reclaims the popmeister title that he himself invented with Jaws, and crafts a near-perfect film in the process. I say near-perfect, while giving it my highest rating, because the brief bookend narration by Morgan Freeman creates such a major break in tone (while remaining most true to the original material) that it kind of trips the film up. However, why quibble over 4 aggregate minutes, when the rest of the movie paid off its value so much more? I actually had to see it twice before I could rationally watch it as a film instead of just experiencing it as an adventure.

HG Wells’ book scared the poop out of people in 1898; Orson Welles’ famous 1939 radio broadcast version (set in new Jersey, as with this version) actually drove terrorized people to suicide. The 1953 film version scared people for decades of reruns (watch it – it’s still scary, even when you can see the strings) and this remake follows faithfully and terrifyingly in their footsteps. This movie is scary – butt-clenchingly, deliciously and constantly terrifying. Even twice.

Spielberg breaks his long-standing rule of lingering reaction shots and withholding the moneyshot of the monster in favor of getting right down to the scary stuff, which starts around the time Ray (Tom Cruise) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) get under a table and really, it doesn’t stop. The little things that harken back to 9/11 may be a little “easy” but they sure are effective. Another thing Spielberg is a master at is humanizing huge human tragedy. Yes, it’s terrible that the human race is getting slaughtered like ants (oops, was that a spoiler?) but the fact that this nightmare is also bringing Ray’s failures as a parent into such sharp relief gives it the pathos that keeps the fear from becoming numbing.

Spielberg’s other skill is of course in the visuals. He frames each segment painstakingly, plans every shot, and it pays off big. Like with Jurassic Park, the effects are so keenly executed, you actually need to use your logical, detached mind to determine whether you are looking at puppets and when you are looking at CGI. I have to say, there are a couple of shots where you are pretty much convinced they built a 200 foot killer alien tripod and sent it strolling about. It just couldn’t be an effect.

The sound design is simply incredible – see this on the big screen to take the full effect of what one called the “tuba report” sound of the alien tripods. When this is combined with utterly pure visuals, the product is unstoppable. Our theatre shook and trembled right along with us – the uniformed military at the doorways (ambiance!) had to have been having shell-shock. John Williams’ score more resembles his early 20th century style compositions (think Stravinsky) and less like his traditional movie scores. I found it moody and spooky, though one of my companions was sad he couldn’t hum the tune leaving the theatre.

As for the much-discussed ending, which I will not give away, I think anyone who has a problem with it can just go read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (or watch the current PBS miniseries), and then we can have a rational discussion. Surprisingly, I was not distracted by the Tom Cruise hoopla surrounding his recent kookiness (though I was distracted by Ms. Holmes in Batman Begins), which is a testament to his embodiment of Ray. After a second viewing, I have to credit Dakota for her truly real performance giving the film most of its heft. Her fear and panic kept me cranked up even when my cynical moviebuff self would have otherwise sat back and left my body to think about the technical aspects of the show.

It’s worth every penny.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/29/05
Time in minutes 117
Director Steven Spielberg
Studio Paramount / Dreamworks

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H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds

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At first, you pity wee Pendragon Pictures – they finally make a blip on the radar screen by producing a feature film of a popular science fiction story but doing it for the first time as it was originally written, set in 1898 with Martians chasing horse drawn wagons, etc – and then the Spielberg juggernaut is released in the same year. How could you not be curious, pitying, how could you not want to support the underdog in this Battle Royale for Wellesian fun? So, you can’t rent it anywhere. It didn’t show on any theatre in your area.”Poor Pendragon pictures! They really got a raw deal.” However, were Cruise and Spielberg not gracing our screens with terrific effects, sublime pacing, music, cinematography, and Dakota Fanning, we still should never have heard of H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds.

A wise man said, “If your story depends on computer graphics to make it work, you had better be good at it.” It is also a truism that if the mechanics of storytelling are working, your audience will forgive much else. In the mid-1990’s, I saw a short film called Red Boy 13, which was apparently shot for about $200, with a large number of action sequences all done with very basic computer graphics, including a helicopter abduction. The movie worked despite its primitive sequences because the writing was solid. Despite having one of the classics of science-fiction literature as source material, director/cinematographer/editor Timothy Hines did not manage to tell a story with this movie. I quote J.W. Eagan: “Never judge a book by its movie.”

The film actually owes a great debt to the book and the several adaptations that preceded it for us to know what actually happened in some of these scenes. Hines spends lots of time filming his characters running, walking, and going by carriage to and from incredibly short scenes where he minimizes the screen time of the non-locations he has pasted behind his actors. There is so much extraneous, unnecessary footage in this movie, he actually made a three hour – yes, 180 minutes – film out of a book that has only 150 pages. Also it appears to have been completely shot without sound and then the dialogue looped in later, with the pleasant and serviceable score by Jamie Hall.

Hines also cast Anthony Piana as two characters (I took them to be brothers): the main character known as The Writer (with the producer/co-writer as his wife) and a doctor. The doctor’s scenes are short and for the most part devoid of Martian activity; he’s traveling and reading about what’s happening in other parts of the country. Sadly, the Writer character has an embarrassing fake moustache, which might have better served being on the brother with less screen time. Piana and the truly delightful Jack Clay as Ogilvy start the movie together, and as long as Ogilvy is alive, the movie is too (and it would have been nice if Clay had served as dialect coach for his costars). When the Martians show up with their unfocused, sloppy animation, the movie bogs down into a quagmire of reaction shots, running, and running. And repetitive scenes. In crazy blurry color washes and “blurry” depth of field. When I say sloppy animation, I am taking the budget into consideration – show your evil tentacles doing something purposeful, not just waving around. Look at all the elements you have composited and notice that the man in full 100 meter dash stride is moving at walking speed.

Since you can’t rent it, or see it in a theatre, your only option is to buy it (or borrow it from some poor stiff: Thanks, Steve!), and then it will sit on your shelf, shaming you. Meanwhile, Pendragon Pictures will use its serendipitous notoriety and the sales from this film to make more. I am as big a supporter of the little guy as possible, but these folks need to step back and learn how to tell a story in a way that it doesn’t matter about the quaint animation issues or weird color/paintbox choices. IMDB nitpickers talk about how Big Ben doesn’t have Parliament near it in a shot – I think the bigger issue is that we really don’t need to see people scramble up and down a slippery slope 12 times in as many minutes. The continuity is good, which shows that the editor (Hines) is careful, but the pace and the unnecessary footage and throwaway scenes ruin what could have been a B- senior project.

It was a noble goal to adapt the work as it was written, but they lacked both the funding for a period film with complex special effects (though the costumes were actually very good) and they lacked the ability to distill a story to its basic elements. It wounds me to pick on the little guy, but sometimes you need to look at what you can do well and work with that. Make a choice to make the whole movie look woobly and painty, like Waking Life, and we will go with that flow – but intercutting surreal impressionistic crowd scenes with sharply focused close ups only draws attention to what you are trying to mask. Jack Clay proved himself a fine actor, and I hope that he finds a project worthy of his talents.

MPAA Rating Not rated
Release date 3/30/05
Time in minutes 180
Director Timothy Hines
Studio Pendragon Films

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The Time Machine (2002)

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Directed by the grandson of the book’s author, H.G. Wells, this Time Machine is naturally benefited by the current technology both in presentation and in supposition. Guy Pearce looks like death warmed over in the scenes when he should be the most lovable, but besides that, I really enjoyed this film. If you don’t know the story, maybe the title will give you a clue: a man invents a time machine and uses it. In the classic tale, however, he goes maybe 100 years ahead in our future and then, accidentally, 800,000 years into the future and discovers a new world right where jolly old England used to be. In it, humans have divided into extreme sub-species. Mayhem, etc. It’s amazingly forward-thinking of Mr. Wells to have written this in 1899, and even more forward thinking to properly update it with modern technological know-how.

Orlando Jones, as an our-near-future interactive library database, provides much of the audience touchstone for the film as well as summarizing the important plot points for the unread audiences. With one barnyard sound effect he sums up the whole Eloi/Morlock issue and gave me the most memorable moment in the film. He is obviously an artistic improvement on HG’s 1899 edition, but I think that venerable old author would have loved him. Amusingly, the film apes its own origins with no shame, including making reference to itself in the library. Sexy Irish hip hop star Samantha Mumba (she has a song on the Legally Blonde soundtrack, bizarrely) plays one of the fetching Eloi. Normally reliable Jeremy Irons is head Morlock, and it is regrettably in his demesne that the film starts to break down for me.

However, the effects are naturally spectacular. The beautiful cliff-dwellings of the Eloi and their Amazonian flavor lend them a more human, less stupid feel than that in the novel. The Morlocks are both more horrible and more recognizably human than they come across in the book, which I think serves the story well. The delicate issue of the time-space continuum is handled visually and neatly, and overall does not skip modern theory, using contemporary cinematic language cribbed from Star Trek but totally appropriate for the translation of this beloved Victorian work. Hey, whatever gets the kids reading, right? Pearce becomes more handsome as he becomes more alive when challenged in this brave new world; his departure from his 1899 life is welcome, so unpleasant a character as he was becoming.

I won’t lie to you and say that this is a totally faithful retelling; the ending is cleaned up a little bit, the Traveller makes a different choice at the end, and a few other minor details. But the spirit of the book (OK, except for the end choice made by the Traveler, thereby kind of blowing the theme off) is there. Check it out.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 3/8/02
Time in minutes 96
Director Simon Wells
Studio Warner Bros/Dreamworks