Saturday, February 21, 2009

H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds

The Asylum is a direct-to-DVD production company whose main stock in trade is producing “cover” versions of more heavily advertised, higher-budgeted movies. They countered Snakes on a Plane with Snakes on a Train, The Invasion with Invasion of the Pod People. Quality is not high on their agenda, since their business model seems to be based on people’s inability to read a DVD box cover. In 2005, when Steven Speilberg directed War of the Worlds as a Tom Cruise vehicle, they countered with H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As always, use of the author’s name in the title indicates the script will deviate significantly from the original story.

The Asylum’s version of War of the Worlds stars former Brat Pack member C. Thomas Howell. He plays an astronomer and mainly serves as our point of view character. He has a wife and child, who head for Washington just before the attack occurs, so the main focus of his struggle is to find them. We get a brief glimpse of their family life beforehand. They are about to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary, which leads to something of a shudder. Howell was 39 when the movie was filmed, but looks much older (he had suffered some health problems which caused drastic weight loss, and has prematurely grey hair) and the actress playing his wife is 24 and looks it, giving us a mental image of a courtship involving an older guy stalking a 14 year old. Their marriage is under pressure, since he is constantly being called to work on emergencies. I’m not sure what constitutes an emergency for an astronomer, maybe a lot of stars keep blowing up or something.

Anyway, the Martians attack, and as in the other versions, things go badly for the old human race. This version eschews the traditional tripod look for the alien machines in favor of a more crab-like appearance, although that doesn’t really matter much. They blast, melt, gas, and stomp various humans. As might be expected in a low-budget movie, the special effects are nothing to shout about, but they are passable.

Howell, whose character’s name is George Herbert (get it?), begins his journey to find his family and runs into facsimiles of the familiar characters from the novel. He meets a soldier, who is much more sympathetic than his written counterpart – it is his commander who is crazy – and a preacher. Ultimately, things work out as the Martians come to regret not taking their flu shots.

The first half of the movie really isn’t that bad, but it clangs to a halt about the time the preacher appears. Not that is solely his fault, it looks like the production ran out of money, and the second half is Herbert and the preacher talking to each other, and it isn’t exactly My Dinner With Andre. The preachers spend his time endlessly complaining about how hungry he is – it’s his comeback to everything – which would be more believable if he wasn’t stuffing his damn face in just about every scene. He’s supposed to be having some sort of existential crisis, trying to reconcile his faith with what is happening, but it seems more likely he’s just bummed because he finished the last of the crackers. Fortunately he gets crushed before he can suffer the slow death of starvation that would have taken him after he went without eating for 15 minutes.

The movie was successful enough for a sequel to be made (cleverly called The War of the Worlds 2), this time directed by Howell. As the foodie preacher is dead, I will probably get around to it eventually. It really wouldn’t have been a bad little popcorn flick if they’d had the money to keep the action scenes going in the second half.

For uncertain reasons, the movie is called Invasion in Europe. As you might guess, the box cover photo of an alien machine blowing up the White Hose a la Independence Day doesn't actually take place.

No comments: