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