This post has been a long time coming. After reading and not particularly enjoying H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, I decided to go on and listen to the radio play again, watch both the 1953 and 2005 movie versions and read Alan Moore’s interpretation of the adventure using his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the second volume of that book. I listened to the play again online, watched the first movie and read the trade within a pretty short amount of time, but then got hung up on watching the latest movie for timing reasons.
To sum up my previous post, I thought WOTW (first published in 1898) was an interesting book that based an alien invasion story around the technology and military practices of the time. Overall, the way the story was told (almost completely in first person recollection–like a journal–with almost no dialog) sapped a lot of the tension right out of the proceedings. Hell, you know he survives because he’s writing the book you’re supposedly reading. The basic idea of the book is that our white collar main character sees something fall from the sky that turns out to be a Martian. These head-like aliens with giant eyes and tentacles shot here in cylinders, built huge tripods, walked around in them destroying things with heat rays and green death fog only to be SPOILER brought down by Earth germs. Without spoiling too much, I enjoyed every other version of this story more than the original text.As I mentioned in the post about the book, I was fascinated by the 1938 radio play version of the story orchestrated by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater (you can listen to it here if you’re interested). It was done on Halloween that year and–this is the part that blows me away–some people thought it was real! This might seem ridiculous, especially considering the opening, intermission and very end make it very clear you’re listening to fiction, but just imagine how many times you’ve tuned into a TV show a few minutes after the start. The way the story was presented to people back then was basically the same as a mockumentary now. A live concert was interrupted, first by reports of strange streaks in the sky and later by a full-on report from New Jersey where one of the pods landed. There’s even a great moment early on when they interview a guy who was just driving around listening to the radio program that we are listening to. He says he was getting bored and dozing because it was boring!
Even though this thing was done almost 75 years ago, it still felt thrilling and spot on from a news standpoint. Even though I’d heard it before a bunch of times, I was excited to hear what was going on. It’s kind of like watching Jaws or Halloween again. I know what’s happening but I love the ride. I’m also really impressed that it still feels like a modern up-to-the-minute news story. It reminded me of seeing the events of 9/11 unrolling when I was in college. You have no idea what’s going on except for a few things you’re hearing/seeing and you’re trying to put the pieces together. And, man, it just feels hopeless at times. How are these people going to defeat these giant monsters they can’t seem to even touch?
Compared to the book, the radio play is far more exciting. They use the same basic story structure, but the inclusion of New Jersey and New York City as locations and more common language make it easier to follow. By this time, the language of sci-fi was more established, so it’s easier to explain what’s going on. We also see some straight-up sections taken from the book mostly after the intermission with the narrator explaining what’s going on. The character of the infantryman showing up and giving his spiel about sneaking around and building up a resistance to fight the aliens. And, of course, the story ends with our hero realizing the aliens have died from Earth germs. The 1953 version of War Of The Worlds is considered a sci-fi classic. I had no idea, but I can see why after watching the movie. It’s a very 50s flick with nearly everything shot on backlots (I know this might look corny to some people, but I love the look of studio lot movies like Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry). This time around, our hero meets up with a girl and winds up getting stuck in a house with her (like the hero in the book was, but he was with an annoying guy). I thought this change in dynamic was interesting and offered some different elements that I enjoyed. There’s also a really intense scene where one of the Martians sticks an eyed tentacle into the house and the couple have to avoid it for fear of being killed.
Another new element that you can see on the above poster is that, instead of riding around in tripods, these aliens use flying ships (which were actually mentioned as potential transport for the Martians in the book). The effects look amazing–especially when you see an actual Martian’s hand–and there’s an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD that I got from Netflix that goes through and shows how they did a lot of the practical effects for the movie (fun fact: Ray Harryhausen shot test footage because he wanted to do the movie, but it went to someone else).
Again, compared to the book, this is a much more engaging journey right off the bat. Four minutes in and I was jazzed about the story and wanted to see what was going to happen. One interesting thing is that, in the very beginning, they actually show Mars and then the other planets, explaining why they wouldn’t work for the Martians (which is interesting because at the end of the book, we’re told another planet would work, I think it was Venus, but scientifically speaking that’s nonsense). Anyway, they use more science than Wells had access to, but it’s funny to see a drawing of Earth from space instead of a picture, because, well, we hadn’t been to space yet.
If you’re a sci-fi fan, you should do yourself a favor and rent or just buy this bad boy. The movie is awesome, but it’s also jam packed with extras. You’ve got the FX thing I already mentioned, plus interviews with the surviving cast members, especially the female lead who knew a LOT about what was going on with the making of the film. The most interesting aspect though, was a featurette which compared Wells with the other godfather of sci-fi Jules Verne. Apparently Verne didn’t like Wells because Verne took the time to do the science and Wells just made stuff up that doesn’t make a lot of sense (like the seemingly nonsense Martian biology his narrator describes). Oh, they also have the full radio show on the DVD too, if you don’t want to listen to it on your computer. Aside from the radio play, the second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was the other version of War of the Worlds I’d experienced before. There’s a lot more going on in these issues that originally came out between 2002 and 2003 from Wildstorm imprint America’s Best Comics, including a visit to Dr. Moreau (as in The Island Of) and a pair of confrontations between members, one romantical, the other super duper gross and bloody. But, the overall thrust of the story involves Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man doing what they can to stop the Martian invasion (Moore went with the traditional tripod designs for the Martian walkers as you might expect from the master of detail).
LOEG is not only one of my favorite concepts (Expendables is basically the LOEG of action stars!) but also one of my all-time favorite comics. I even did a big paper comparing the characters in the comic to the characters in the original books back when I was in college, though it was confined to just the first volume because otherwise, I would have gone insane. Anyway, what I like most about Moore’s take on the story is that humanity actually gets to do something more than fumble around until germs kill the Martians. If you haven’t read this trade yet (what are you waiting for?) this is SPOILER territory. Not only does Hyde fight one with his bare hands, but the trip to Moreau is to get a bioweapon mixing anthrax and streptococcus that they fire at the aliens to take them out. YEAH! Humanity FINALLY got to do something instead of knocking a few tripods down with rockets or whatever. The final entry in the post comes down to 2005’s War of the Worlds flick directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins and even cameos by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson who were the leads in the 1953 flick! This time around Cruise stars as a divorcee who doesn’t have the best relationship with his son and daughter (Fanning). He’s got them for the weekend when the aliens start their invasion and goes on a tour of the east coast trying to keep them safe. Spielberg incorporates elements from all the previous official renditions mentioned above including paraphrases or direct quotes from the radio play, book and 1953 movie along with a few scenes from the previous movie. This time, instead of arriving in cylinders, the war machines were supposedly buried on Earth years ago (before roads were built) and a lightning bolt somehow brought the aliens down from Mars into the robots while also taking out communications and machines with an electromagnetic pulse. I understand why they changed this: modern humans wouldn’t wait around for an alien to build a craft in a hole. But, it just feels kind of strange and goes back to one of the problems with Wells’ original: some of the science doesn’t make any sense.
Anyway, the aliens once again ride tripods, feed off of humans and destroy lots and lots of things and people with their heat rays. Cruise–the luckiest man in the world as everyone around him gets zapped to death and he almost never gets grabbed by the aliens unless he wants to–gets home, gets his kids and they make a break for it. Once again, even though I knew how the story would end, I was still really drawn into the story thanks to the obstacles Spielberg put between Cruise’s family and safety.
Back when this movie first came out I wasn’t very interested because of Cruise’s real-life craziness, but I actually liked him in the movie, partly because his character is kind of a crazy asshole. It’s like watching Nic Cage’s enjoyable movies like National Treasure instead of the ones where he’s trying to be serious (Bangkok Dangerous SUCKED). I had a lot of fun with the movie, but once again, it ends with people discovering Earth germs kill Martians, though there are a couple scenes where humanity takes a few of them down, which is nice. Again, even knowing the ending, I was just waiting to see how things would end (aside from the germs).
After reading the book I thought “Well, I don’t like this version, but the story has a lot of potential.” Clearly that’s correct, though I’m not sure how much more it might have. Frankly, the fact that humans don’t get to actually do anything, makes for a less-than-stellar story. I know that the meat of the remakes have been about the perseverance of the human spirit in the most daunting and adverse situations, but with the same ending every time (minus LOEG Vol. 2) it gets kind of neutered. In the end, I think I’m all set on War of the Worlds remakes and reinterpretations, unless they can recreate the real life panic started by the radio show. THAT would be interesting.