Thursday, 5 December 2019

The War Of The Worlds - BBC

War Of The Wells

The War Of The Worlds - BBC
2019 UK Directed by Craig Viveiros
Three episodes. Airdate: 17th November 1st December

Just a heads up that there have been two TV series based on H. G. Wells’ famous novel The War Of The Worlds in 2019. One is produced by Fox/Canal, runs for eight episodes and, as far as I can tell, has not yet been screened in the UK (although it has aired in a lot of other countries, by the looks of it). The subject of this review, however, is the recent BBC, three episode mini-series. I was originally going to write three reviews, one for every episode but, after I saw the first installment and knowing I really don’t enjoy writing negative reviews, I decided to just do one piece encapsulating the whole series. Why post three miserable reviews when one could suffice?

Now, I‘ve had my problems with both The War Of The Worlds as it’s been adapted for the screen over the years and the current state of BBC created science fiction. Let’s briefly mention the previous adaptations first...

I’ve not seen all of the screen versions of the novel but I have seen many of them. The George Pal movie of the 1950s is something I would probably enjoy watching again but the last time I saw this, when I was a kid, I remember being disappointed with the lack of the tripods from the book in it and, obviously, the change to the time period. I remember seeing a couple of episodes, too, of the semi-popular TV series in the 1980s which, if memory serves, used pretty much the 1950s George Pal version of the martian machines and, again, it seemed to have not too much to do with the book. Even Spielberg had a go with it but his contemporary version with, again, some pretty hefty changes to the concerns of the book, was somehow closer than the other versions out there. In fact, in all cases I’ve seen so far, the closest to Wells’ original novel would have to be the rock concept album produced by Jeff Wayne in the 1970s... which really is a work of earworm perfection if you listen to it in its original form.

The new BBC series, despite claims of period authenticity (which is dubious but close) is somehow even further removed from the source material than even Spielberg’s version, it has to be said. The science fiction of the BBC always used to be a wonderful thing. They had the Quatermass serials, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven and a whole host of other hot and interesting sci-fi shows done with creative flair and panache which helped make them a leading representative in the field of televisual science fiction. Alas, standards have slipped over the years and there seems to be a lot of ‘not up to it’ productions going on lately. For instance, the state of Doctor Who over the last seven or so years in terms of the quality of the writing (nothing wrong with the way the Doctors are played at all, which has been consistently brilliant) has been pretty ‘Bleah!’ and you only have to compare the BBCs vibrant and exciting, ‘definitive’ adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids back in 1981 to their ‘dire to the point of being almost unwatchable’ 2009 adaptation of the same novel to see how far standards have fallen.

And I have to say, the trend continues with this new adaptation of The War Of The Worlds. This is pretty much nothing to do with Wells’ original story other than it a) has martians on it... looking nothing like the original martians, b) has tripods in it which have somehow been designed to look as bland as possible instead of the robust, steampunk creations which might have served the spectacle of the story better, c) has something similar but really not right in terms of the way of ending the martian conquest was inadvertently thwarted in the books and d) has token references to the red weed.

Now, the writer here has obviously decided he can write something different and more relevant than H. G. Wells here and you can even see where he’s been trying to do something different with the material to set it apart from what we’ve seen before. Well, my big argument with that would be... we’ve never had a faithful adaptation as far as I know. You’re trying to run before you’ve proven you can walk and people wanted to finally see a straight adaptation of the original rather then some half baked, non-linear depiction of something barely inspired by the events of the novel in a way that’s deliberately structured to take away any surprise whatsoever from anyone not familiar with the source... which, bearing in mind it has never been properly adapted, is probably less well known than the writer here thought.

So yeah, we have the death by disease coming up in the flash forwards to years after the initial invasion and giving away the real ending before it’s barely begun. It’s also not a common cold virus that knocks the martians out in this either... it’s a carefully worked at and cultivated mish mash of viral ingredients that, in this version, spells the end of the red weed. So even Wells’ brilliant punchline of the deadly foe being taken out by accident, by something as relatively docile as the ‘common cold’, is revealed way too early and has had its real sting removed. So yeah, not happy and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in regards to this version.

Then there’s the acting. It’s bad but I’m not blaming the various cast for their performances here... I’m blaming the writing and direction. Some of the lines are bad enough... not to mention the introduction of a subplot about divorce coupled with an extra marital affair culled from H. G. Wells’ own life and a ridiculous, bizarre guilt trip about the achievements of the British Empire. However, the way the physical performances are often left as dangling, visual non-sequiturs was, perhaps, the editor having nothing to cut to in the next shot or, I dunno, just some strange decisions on the part of the director.

Seriously, the main cast consisting of Rafe Spall, Eleanor Tomlinson, Rupert Graves and Robert Carlyle are all brilliant enough but, apart from having to deliver some ridiculous lines at times, they all seem to have a penchant for looking away or staring at something out of shot, sometimes at amusingly inappropriate times. Such as when Tomlinson might be asked by the director to ‘look up and out past that line of trees there’, perhaps... I was waiting for something to maybe materialise or at least show us what she was looking at but, nope. Just staring into space, I guess. And Spall seems to often pause in thought and pull faces without letting us know what’s precisely on his mind at regular intervals, for example. And, honestly, I’m happy with visual storytelling where characters can think and convey their inner turmoil without having to vocalise it and often enjoy these kinds of movies but, yeah, I really didn’t feel like playing guessing games for a show which, somehow, manages to skirt around the real heart of the source material it is busy ignoring and ends up as just, I have to say it, a deadly dull affair.

That being said, the second episode picks up the pace a little, only to jettison it by the time the third episode rolls around, with its unimaginative creatures and its slew of unnecessary, wholly preventable deaths of various characters, In fact, bearing in mind the ending of the original novel is kinda revealed and slightly side-stepped early in the story, I have to say I found the last shot of the last episode particularly confusing. Here we have the lovely Eleanor Tomlinson staring up at the sky and I’m left thinking... okay, what’s she looking at? Is it the... wait... is she patiently awaiting the approaching, inevitable end credits of this monstrosity to turn up at some point? Yep. Pretty much. I didn’t get anything else out of that last sequence which, considering it’s supposed to be The War Of The Worlds, left me a little disappointed.

Added to all this is the fact that, honestly, the special effects and the design of the martians isn’t all that great. I did find myself clock watching at a number of places in the narrative and overall, I can’t help but think that overly ambitious substitutes for a decent, working version of ‘the heat ray’ would have been a lot more satisfying than this dull carnival ride of a weapon that they’ve presumably spent a lot of time and money on dreaming up for this version.

So there you have it. I’ve always quite liked The War Of The Worlds but this is pretty far removed from anything H. G. Wells wrote, to be honest. Yeah, it’s time to do a proper, big budget version of this but, seriously, let’s not try to deviate so far from the story that it’s got so little in common with the original text that it’s almost unrecognisable. I’d been looking forward to seeing this production for a long time and I suspect I know why it’s had a fair bit of a delay in its release to the general public now. This one definitely wasn’t my cup of tea and I’d perhaps suggest going back to the musical album if you want a more palatable version of Wells’ original classic.

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