Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 1

War of the Worlds: The Series starts off with a two hour long pilot titled The Resurrection. It introduces us to the premise of the show and all of our main characters and settings for at least the first season.

The premise of the show is introduced gradually. We start off witnessing a large tractor-trailer truck approaching a military storage depot. The two drivers shoot the guards, then let their compatriots out of the back to roll around the base in ATVs. Much delightful carnage ensues as the terrorists (they're with the People's Liberation Party) hunt down the poor army men. It's a bit silly, seeing how easily the terrorists mow down the armed soldiers, but it's just the prelude. During the battle, some stray bullets hit drums of radioactive sludge. These drip down onto the steel drums below them, marked "Classified 1953." Ominously, a three fingered hand emerges from one as the credits start.

From there, we get to meet most of the main cast. The male lead is Jared Martin as Dr. Harrison Blackwood. Blackwood is an astrophysicist who's parents were killed in the invasion. He was raised by Dr. Clayton Forrester, protagonist of the 1953 movie. Kudos to Martin for his excellent portrayal of this quirky scientist - he at times seems to be channeling Gene Barry's performance. The female lead is Lynda Mason Green, playing microbiologist Suzanne McCullough. McCullough has just come to work for the eccentric Dr. Blackwood. She's a bit uneven, at least in this episode. Some of that might be intentional - Blackwood keeps her off-balance with his unusual style. Her new job (at the New Pacific Institute of Technology no less, a nice reference to the first film) is to daydream about other alien life forms. The reason is to narrow down their search for extra-terrestrial life from a few billion areas to a mere hundred million. The third member of the team, Norton Drake, is played by Philip Akin. He's a wheelchair-bound computer scientist / hacker and a good friend of Blackwood. Unfortunately, I find Akin's portrayal of Drake to be almost painfully bad. He drifts from a neutral accent to a (mercifully faint) Jamaican accent and is rather over the top. The moment when he tells McCullough that she better like her coffee black (he himself is black) is particularly cringeworthy.

By this point, though, the team hasn't quite realized the trials ahead of them. The terrorists patrol the base, getting ready for a broadcast. It seems that their plan is to threaten to make dirty bombs if the President of the United States won't back down. (For those keeping track, that would probably be Ronald Regan - the series starts in 1988, 35 years after the 1953 invasion.) Before they can make their demands, they are one by one grabbed and dragged off by aliens. It's a true horror-film moment, and Director Colin Chilvers does a good job selling it. It helps that he keeps the aliens to the shadows, only giving us an occasional glimpse of their hands or eyes. I'm sure that the full-on alien suit would look very silly, but we never get the chance to realize it. He also does some alien POV shots and they're quite reminiscent of a scene from the movie where we see what a view from an alien camera might look like, a nice touch.

The aliens have merged with the bodies of the terrorists, and after a bit of consultation with 'the council' back on their home world, the Advocacy (the triumvirate of alien leaders) decide that their best bet is to go elsewhere with the bodies of their brethren. Off they drive, their bodies already starting to decay from the radiation that kills off the bacteria that laid them low in 1953. They need to regroup before they can renew their invasion and secure for themselves 'life immortal.' Still, decaying or not, the bodies provide some measure of protection from prying human eyes.

Norton has been monitoring odd signals from space for years, but when he finds those same signals coming from Earth he is intrigued. Intrigued enough to call Blackwood away from a black-tie event with his fiancee Charlotte (Gwynyth Walsh, who would go on to play Klingon femme fatale B'Eator on Star Trek: The Next Generation.) The dissolution of Blackwood's relationship with Charlotte would play out over the course of the episode. Perhaps symbolizing the abandonment of his old life in favor of the alien-hunting life he would be forced into, it never really resonates. This is probably because she is so obviously wrong for him, trying to push him into the private sector where he could make some real money. One wonders what they saw in each other in the first place. But I digress.

Based on Norton's research, Blackwood and McCullough head out to Fort Jerico, the alien-compromised base. There they encounter the last main character, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse. Ironhorse, played by real-life Vietnam veteran Richard Chaves of Predator fame, is heading up the investigation into the attack on the base. Blackwood convinces the Colonel to let him be a part of the investigations with some bogus tapes of the intercepted transmissions. What he sees terrifies him - six barrels, burst from the inside. But what he doesn't see terrifies him more - there should be hundreds, perhaps thousands of barrels, and yet there are only the six burst ones.

Blackwood attempts to warn the military about his fears, going to General Wilson (John Vernon), who happens to be Suzanne's uncle. Wilson does not dismiss the pair out of hand, but wants some hard proof. This brings Blackwood and McCollough smack-dab into the middle of Ironhorse's anti-terrorist operation. Despite Blackwood's dire warnings, Ironhorse launches an all-out assault which is promptly defeated. Most of his men become hosts for newly freed aliens, though Blackwood improbably rescues the military man while McCollough hides in the trunk of a car. Ironhorse demands to know who those 'terrorists' were, but is skeptical about aliens. Which brings us to one of the fundamental flaws of the series - if aliens leveled a large number of cities in 1953, no one would be skeptical about their existence now. The film left no doubt - the aliens were systematically leveling our infrastructure, and doing it damn quickly. No one would ever think humanity alone in the universe after that.

Thus armed with new eyewitness testimony (and some dissolved alien tissue, though that doesn't come up in dialogue,) Wilson decides to give Blackwood a blank check to pursue the aliens. Blackwood, Ironhorse, Drake and McCollough are moved to The Cottage, a secure government mansion outfitted with the most advanced gear money can buy. Debi, Suzanne's eleven-year-old daughter (Rachel Blanchard, who would grow up to play Nancy in the awesome Britcom Peep Show, which isn't as naughty as it sounds) isn't too pleased with the forced relocation. At least, not until she finds out that they have horses. It's a fine performance of an annoying child, which means that it's an annoying performance too. Don't worry, Debi will get a lot better as the series progresses. Drake and McCollough are quite pleased with their new labs, though Blackwood is oddly chagrined to find that his office has been duplicated exactly here. It's as if his old life doesn't matter, he muses. It's true - the subplot about his fiancee went nowhere. The last time we see her they seem to be making up after a big fight.

At the same time as our heroes settle into their new home, the aliens are doing the same. An abandoned nuclear testing facility in the Nevada desert is perfect for their needs - far from humans and full of bacteria-killing radiation. They have also located some war machines, and are preparing to seize them. Fortunately, Harrison provided Drake with a critical clue (the aliens do everything in threes) necessary to crack part of the alien's language. Our heroes, and villains, converge on Hanger 15, site of three war machines. The villains look particularly good as the Advocacy watches a helicopter take off to bring back their greatest technological triumph. It's not all good, though. In one of the biggest plot-holes of the episode, the heroes trick their way into the base so they can plant plastic explosives on board the ships. Why they don't just warn the Airforce that there is a lightly armed group of aliens on the way, I don't know. They were warned by General Wilson to 'keep things quiet', but this is absurd.

The aliens board their craft and rise up, blasting through the ceiling. The FX guys do a fantastic job here. The war machines look and feel like the 1953 versions. The sounds they make are spot-on, and the heat ray effect is perfect. The machines blast some aircraft on runways before taking potshots at our running heroes. The explosions do their job, though, and all three ships are destroyed. The team pats themselves on the back, but Harrison feels that the aliens are still out there and will be back. He's right, of course. The Advocacy communes with the council from their caves, bemoaning human cleverness and revealing that they have a deadline of some sort. Alien hands play across a keyboard connected to a makeshift computer as the credits roll.

This is a fairly campy continuation to the classic film. Between the dissolving alien bodies and the idea of alien bodysnatchers, we've crossed over from what is basically a war story to what is basically a horror story. Aliens can be anywhere, heck, be anyone! However, they lack the gear that made them invulnerable in the movies, necessitating guerrilla tactics on their parts. Though they would make the occasional attempt to secure new tech, they'd never get quite as close as they do this episode. The performances range from quite good (Martin, Chaves) to adequate (Green) to downright terrible (Akin.) The production values are pretty good this episode - we're given two big fight pieces and both work fairly well. Bringing back the immortal war machines gave some great emotional continuity with the movie. Hearing those mantas click and chitter again was fantastic.

There are some great moments. Chaves is at his best when he shows his human side, telling Debi a story about his ancestors, a tribe of Native Americans, possibly encountering a non-human artifact. When Blackwood tries to connect with him over the story, Ironhorse immediately withdraws. "It's just folklore," he replies. Just about every moment with the aliens was fun. We never got inside the alien's heads in the movie, but now we get to see their leaders deliberate. Their guttural language is suitably alien, though seldom spoken. I also love seeing them meditate in threes, back to back to back and softly chanting. The Advocacy, the field commanders here on Earth, are terrifically macabre and will only get more so as the series progresses. Doctor Forrester, while not in the script, looms large over their world. His notes inform their research, the lessons of his life informing Blackwood's cynicism towards the government.

Unfortunately, there are some terrible moments too. Martin and Walsh have no chemistry together, short-circuiting their subplot. The plot holes (people not believing in aliens, not warning the Airforce) are glaring. The acting is too uneven - Akin aside, there are a couple of hillbillies that are painfully over the top, as well as some drunken helicopter pilots. One wonders if the director was telling them to keep hamming it up, though there is subtlety in other performances.

Overall, I feel that the good outweighs the bad. I don't think that being a fan of the original is enough to recommend the series - there aren't enough of the same elements, and the quality just isn't as high. That said, if you enjoyed the first movie and like science fiction horror, this series delivers very well.  War of the Worlds - The Complete First Season  is available on DVD from Amazon.com and other places DVDs are sold.

3 comments:

Jimtron said...

Friend of the blog To Life Immortal has sent me some extra info on this episode - a deleted scene that he has the script for:

EXT. SMALL TOWN- DAY

Quiet, peaceful. As we MOVE through this town, we realize that even here, the Punk Revolution has a solid foothold. A rowdy knot of BOYS, GIRLS and UNDECIDEDS (technicolor hair, leather and gaudy jewelry proudly displayed) hang out at a retail television store.

ANGLE THROUGH TV STORE WINDOW

to the display set inside. Tonight's program is a "Star Trek" rerun. Into the REFLECTION in the glass step:

EINHORN, CHAMBERS AND URICK

their skin very pale, showing early stages of radiation poisoning. This gruesome threesome watches the Enterprise do battle with aliens. Meanwhile:

THE GROUP OF PUNKS

are attracted to Einhorn, Chambers and Urick. GIGGLES and ANIMAL SOUNDS betray their interest.

BACK TO EINHORN, CHAMBERS AND URICK

concentration shifting from TV set to Punks. Giggles fall silent. Silence evolves to strategic retreat as the Punks decide to hang out elsewhere. After a beat, our threesome turn in unison and head back to:

THE SHINY TRACTOR-TRAILER

parked nearby. Teal, Finney and Mossoud wait near the rear. Einhorn, Chambers and Urick join them.

URICK
The Earthlings are still no threat.
It's time we continued to our destination.

Nods. Chambers and Einhorn open the rear doors so that Teal, Finney and Mossoud can climb into the back. As they do, we see that the trailer is full to bursting with rusty barrels which we've come to recognize as those containing Alien remains.

Anonymous said...

This deleted scene was in the novelization of the pilot episode. The novelization greatly expands on the pilot in several areas (including flashbacks with Clayton Forrester and Harrison), and shouldn't be overlooked.

The fx on the war machines was OK, but it was obvious in some shots they were one dimensional computer generated images. Given the budget of the show, this is to be expected, but still disappointing in that they could have constructed new models for the scene (seeing as how one of the original movie models was lost in a fire, another was melted down for scrap copper, and another was sold to a private collector).

Pastor Michael Henry said...

"The moment when he tells McCullough that she better like her coffee black (he himself is black) is particularly cringeworthy."

You're not a coffee drinker are you? :D I'm from Monticello Arkansas and in coffee shops (No not Starbucks, a small cafe where breakfast and coffee drinkers gather to gossip), you will get picked on (being a sissy, too womanly, etc) by having coffee any way but strong and black. I saw that scene as Norton measuring her up. To see what kinda person she is. I always thought Harrison was the opposite, Latte's, wierd coffee's etc. so Norton wanted to contrast the difference between her and Harrison.

"One wonders what they saw in each other in the first place."

A beautiful woman agreeing to go out with a nerd. No wonder Harrison wanted to date her.

"Why they don't just warn the Airforce that there is a lightly armed group of aliens on the way, I don't know. They were warned by General Wilson to 'keep things quiet', but this is absurd."

Compartmentalisation. Happens all the time. And if Project 9 was the ones that had moth-balled them, they definitely didn't want the Blackwood Project there.

This is one of the best episodes of the series, even with some flaws. The novel is HIGHLY recommended even though some elements don't match up.