Showing on TV in the USA on EPIX starting FEBRUARY 16TH, in the UK on FOX starting MARCH 5TH
8 x 49 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Astronomer Catherine Durand detects a strong signal, in the form of a loud pulse, emitting from the star Ross 128 which seems to be of intelligent origin. Soon after, a large group of meteors heads for Earth and destroys the centres of all major inhabited areas. Once on our planet, the round rocks – which might be spacecraft – emit an even more powerful pulse which quickly kills all unsheltered humans. However, a few managed to hide themselves through either luck or judgement, and emerge to try to reach their loved ones or to just attempt to survive. The latter is more difficult than at first seems, because deadly machines are about….
And so for the second time in just over two months, I find myself typing a review of something with these four words in the title: “war”, “of”, “the” and “worlds”, and am virtually experiencing deja vu. Sadly it was with a heavy heart I sat down to do my write-up of the BBC’s The War Of The Worlds, because it was well and truly lousy, a huge let down for this critic who, as he described in the earlier review, had been a fan of H. G. Well’s thrilling, frightening story ever since he heard the fantastic Jeff Wayne album adaptation aged around eight. Here at last was a filmed version set in the original period – but here also was an often incompetent excuse for a mini-series that actually wasn’t even set at the right time after all – they moved the setting forward ten years for some bizarre reason. Nor was it very faithful to what Wells wrote, though its stupidity could probably be best summed up by the scene where two people arrive at a beach full of people and find the folk they’re looking for over the first sand dune. However, a couple of weeks ago it came to my attention that another, present-day War Of The Worlds had been made, and had already been shown in many European and African countries. The trailer and synopsis which missed out the first “the” made it pretty obvious that this was going to be even further from Wells. In fact it has almost nothing to do with what he wrote, which makes one wonders why they gave it the title that it has, though I guess that missing out that opening “the” was intended to clue people into the fact that this will be something very different. Of course it is a well known title that will attract viewers, though it’s one that’s rather misleading. I can’t say that I wasn’t irritated that I was watching a very different story [the only similarity is that invaders from another world take over our planet, that’s really about it!], but this was considerably less annoying than watching the BBC version which made a pretense at vaguely following Wells and then kept changing things. So let’s try to leave Wells and approach this eight-part series not as yet another version of the story we know, but as a totally different entity.
In fact the title is still rather misleading as there’s not really much war – lots of skirmishes but nothing big-scale – though at least there aren’t any ludicrous attempts to partially depict scenes which a small budget would never allow for a successful realisation of this time around. This one still clearly had considerably more money spent on it though, and is generally a well made endeavour. Of course much money was saved by having most of humanity killed by a pulse which is actually reminiscent of the 1975 BBC series Survivor [others influences are probably The Day Of The Triffids, 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead], though I wish we’d seen this, they could have shown it without huge expense I reckon – and we disappointingly don’t. The focus is then on several survivors as they try to locate each other or members of their families that we haven’t met yet, and once I’d adjusted to this and the realisation that I wasn’t going to get lots of spectacular destruction and battles, I was reasonably entertained. Even the large portion of soapy stuff wasn’t initially off putting to this writer who has always had a soft spot for the disaster movies of the ‘70s, though as time goes on this begins to sideline the alien threat too much. And, while one realises not to expect things like giant tripods, it’s disappointing that the only real menaces are dog-like robots, even though we do get a crashed spaceship and some “organic matter” which hint at more. The emphasis on the human side of things sets up expectations that they’ll be some danger from human beings too, but this doesn’t happen much, the majority of folk being relatively nice to each other except for typical soapy conflict. Some potential was lost here, and it therefore doesn’t entirely feel that we are when and where we are, while only a few of the characters are of much interest. But for something that largely consists of a few people wondering about, it’s usually involving, and dares to conclude things/set things up for series two in a commendable puzzling and intelligent way. I think I’ve pieced together what’s going on – though I’m not entirely sure.
The unmistakeable voice of Gabriel Byrne lets us know what has just happened and adds “why? After all of mankind’s cruelty, are we really so different”. I had no idea what was being shown in the opening credits until we’re told a few minutes later that what I was seeing was preparation for tatooing. So we have a story of aliens taking over earth – and the opening credits concern a tattoo? Right then. Things are actually a bit disjointed for a while as we focus mainly on astronomer Catherine, but have the other main characters introduced in small fragments. Bryne is Bill Ward, a neuroscientist introduced rabbiting on to his class about some stuff that went straight over my head, while Elisabeth McGovern in his estranged ex-wife Helen Brown who now lives with someone else. Meanwhile journalist Jonathan Gresham is in Paris being naughty with a pretty French lady [something which has no bearing at all on anything that happens later], despite having a wife, Sarah, and two children, Tom and Emily. And then there’s Kariem Gat Wich Machar, who’s trying to illegally enter Britain. It’s a shame that the top biggest ‘stars’ are saddled with having to play possibly the two dullest people in the entire show, though they do their best to liven matters up a times. It’s certainly a nice change having French and English setting instead of American ones, and a fair bit of tension is introduced by these pulsing sounds that are picked up, though when loads of round meteorites head for earth and cause some destruction we only see a tiny glimpse on TV. Bill discovers that the increasingly strong pulses can cause seizures, and Emily can actually hear them, and it’s really pretty tense here, the pace really ratcheting up – but nooo – it’s too late, and soon most of humanity is wiped out with only those protected [i.e.Kariem was in the back of a lorry] surviving- and yes, it’s a bit contrived that some characters would know where to hide, but it’s not a big deal really.
So far so good anyway. Episode two now sees things settle down as Catherine sets out to find her sister Sophia, Jonathan sets out to find Sarah, Tom and Emily, everyone sets out to find someone else or reach somewhere, – with the exception of Bill who’s saddled with spending almost the entire thing doing research and getting in on very little of the action. It soon becomes quite obvious that we’re going to mostly get lots of walking with moments of excitement – but that’s fine if you never tire of people wondering through deserted streets – and exciting some of these moments are indeed. At one point in episode two, Catherine and some soldiers are ambushed by something which kills some of the soldiers, and we get a really suspenseful sequence, very well handled by director of the first four episodes Gilles Coulier, set in a supermarket making great use of the aisles as this thing that’s only very partially and briefly glimpsed stalks them. There’s much build-up to what turn out to be the afore mentioned dog-like robots who of course easily gun down lots of soldiers but tend to miss badly when shooting at our main protagonists. After a while they do stop being scary antagonists, but why do they carry off babies in a surprisingly upsetting moment even if it’s done off screen [the noise of the robots hauntingly combined with the sound of all these screaming babies in this underground hospital is all you need]? And why does Sarah keep switching back and forth from being blind to being able to see – but in a strange way? These and other questions tend to be ‘partly’ answered rather than ‘fully’ answered which may irritate some. We’re certainly not told why, for example, trillions of people have been killed. But seeing as there might be [I presume] a second series I wasn’t bothered by this and was mostly intrigued. And that darn tattoo now seems like it could be really important.
But the sci-fi stuff often plays second fiddle to human stuff and things do really stall in portions of the second half. We except some romances to develop, but material like Bill and Helen [which relies on Bill having accidentally killed a particular person to provide most of the viewer involvement] trying to patch things up isn’t always written too well, and things are rather set off balance when we’re introduced to Chloe Dumont and her son Sacha who join Jonathan. Sacha was the result of a rape by her brother Noah, and Noah’s still around. This certainly makes for some riveting drama, but does it really belong in a saga of aliens on earth, especially seeing as so much bleeding time is spent on it, and that the rape happened many years ago and wasn’t anything to do with the aliens whatsoever? I have no objection to this kind of thing being incorporated into a story like this, but if you only barely link it to the main drama then it feels very crass. I wonder if it was included so we could have another example of that trendy term ‘toxic masculinity’, in a series which does have a bit of that predictable right-on political pandering, such as the way that most of the white characters end up being dependent on a skilled illegal immigrant, a guy who grabs someone and holds a gun to her head in one scene yet who is totally forgiven by the other person when they next encounter each other – and a guy who reckons that the aliens are invading because “we look different” and “for some that’s enough”. I mean, for god’s sake! Elsewhere is the amusing implication that – and I kid you not – that the residents of one of the planets orbiting Ross 128 [which is actually a real star, they didn’t make it up] felt compelled to attack our planet from extreme anger at having hearing a Nick Cave song. I reckon that from now on I’ll always think of this whenever Cave comes to mind, much like I still can’t not chuckle at the mention of Slim Whitman of hearing his voice thanks to a certain Tim Burton film about alien invasion.
The tone is generally serious though, with few of the unintended laughs [which normally stemmed from ineptitude] that were to be found throughout that other series with almost the same title. Lines like, “you’re more likely to be intelligent if you’re dense”, and, “I thought that you were beautiful from the moment you pissed on me in the shop” is about as good as it gets in that respect. And that’s just fine considering the subject matter. Despite the acres of chat though, it doesn’t feel like we get particularly close to these people, though we still have a few rather touching moments, like when the currently blind Sarah is surprised by being led to a piano and plays a tranquil piece from David Martjin’s very John Carpenter/Jean-Michel Jarre-influenced though not exactly memorable electronic score, while we get a montage involving most of the characters. Another scene involving present giving is really very joyous and releasing. But, as has been the case with some other TV shows of late, almost the whole thing is shot emphasising a dull blue and grey colour template which is fine for a few of the interiors but which can’t help but provide a cold, clinical feel to proceedings. At least what special effects there are, are fine – the robots seem to be rendered partly by CGI and partly by practical effects and almost always look okay. While not dwelling on the gruesomeness, there are still a fair number of bloody deaths, and people who you like are always fair game to be killed off which always helps in adding more edge. And the performances overall tend to be decent, with Lea Drucker [Catherine] perhaps fairing best, if never outstanding.
In fact “decent” is a word that can be used to describe War Of The Worlds overall. In not aiming too high, creator Howard Overman and directors Richard Clark and Gilles Coulier have pulled off a series that, despite some of its traveling actually appearing to happen far too fast if you have a sense of geography, trudges along quite nicely but which never seems to try quite hard enough to distinguish itself. I’d just about recommend that you watch it, because at least it should wash away the stink of that thing from the BBC – but I think that you really need to put away all thoughts of Wells. As for me, I’m certainly intrigued enough by the ending to hope for a second series which I’ll certainly watch. But really – surely you could have called it something else?!