H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (review)

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War Is Hell

Oh, I so wanted to like this flick.

The story behind it has all the elements of, well, a great film itself: hope, tragedy, resilience, imagination, cunning, pluck, even a David-and-Goliath aspect. I wish I could call it a triumph for the little guy, but it’s such an utter failure on all levels that it almost serves as a warning against giving in to great ambition. Clearly, the folks behind this movie thought this was a project they could pull off, and they found enough other folks to believe in them to raise enough money to produce the thing, and to work on the many CGI and miniature effects, and to fill the cast, and to do all the things necessary to make a feature film. And yet the result doesn’t even ring with misplaced passion or insane drive — you can’t even liken it to an Ed Wood movie. It just lies there, comatose, insensate, lifeless. It’s enough to make any creative but insecure artist or writer or filmmaker tremble with terror that his or her own aspirations may be similarly unrealistic.
What happened is this: Seattle-based indie filmmaker Timothy Hines’s Pendragon Pictures set out, in early 2001, to make a contemporary updating of H.G. Wells’s classic novel of alien invasion, with skyscrapers under attack and urban terror and the like. You know what came next: 9/11. With his project — which had already been shot! — suddenly lost to propriety and good taste, Hines came back with an even better idea: a faithful, Victorian-era adaptation of the novel, which had never been done before. And then Spielberg’s modern version of Wells got pulled up from 2007 to 2005… to just after the Pendragon period piece was to be released. (It’s gone direct to video.)

The stage was set for Hines and crew to give us a film that could at least stand as a worthy counterpoint to Spielbergian excess (not that I don’t like Spielbergian excess), something we SF and movie fans could point to and say, Cool — small, but cool. Alas…

Instead, Hines, who directed and cowrote the script with Susan Goforth (who also appears in the film as the unnamed wife of the unnamed narrator of Wells’s book), has given us something huge, lumbering — which may be a kind of miracle on what had to be a tiny budget — and ponderously empty. With an almost unendurable three-hour runtime, this very faithful adaptation takes almost every moment of to-ing and fro-ing dispensed with in the novel with a line or two and turns them into interminable and pointless scenes: “I failed to find Lord Hilton at his house, but I was told he was expected from London by the six o’clock train from Waterloo; and as it was then about a quarter past five, I went home, had some tea, and walked up to the station to waylay him” becomes a turgidly exact depiction of all this unnecessary action.

And if Hines appears to have no idea that there are differences between prose storytelling and filmic storytelling, so slavish is his transference to the screen, he also seems not to understand that subtext and metaphor must be considered even when mounting a period piece — if it says nothing to us today, there’s little point in revisiting an old story. So intent is Hines on obsessive details, like ensuring that his protagonist, the narrator of Wells’s novel (Anthony Piana), misses not a single unnecessary stroll along a country lane, that he has completely forgotten to give us a reason to be compelled by any of this: Why does the idea of alien invasion scare the bejesus out of us? He doesn’t even appreciate the metaphors that may have arisen for Wells’s original audience: saber-rattling in Europe threatening Britain; anxiety over the Western world’s increasing industrialization. There’s simply nothing of any consequence underlying the CGI aliens attacking CGI villages and CGI London while the unknown cast looks on trying to approximate awe.

And the CGI, unfortunately, is of video-game quality — it’s not bad in itself, it just doesn’t blend in with the live action at all well. Hines seems to have compensated for that by giving the whole film odd patinas of red and green and blue — I think the idea is to make it all look like film footage from the turn of the twentieth century that’s been colorized, but it just makes the film look like a video game being played on a TV with one color gun out of commission.

Oh man, I really hate that Hines’s great idea does not approach fulfilling its promise. I really, really wanted this to be a kick in the pants of Hollywood. But it’s just a kick in the teeth to the viewer.

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