Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 0

People in my life recently have been annoyed by me. While this is not really an unusual occurrence, I figured that I'd try to channel the source of that annoyance into something useful. You see, when I get into something, it's all I can talk about. Recently, I've recently been watching a lot of War of the Worlds, The Series.

For those of you who don't remember, in 1988 there was a syndicated series called War of the Worlds. It was set in-continuity with the classic 1953 George Pal film and followed a small team as they tried to battle a revived alien menace. It went two seasons, though the second season was a radical departure for the first. I was 12 when the show started and loved watching it late on a Friday night. Recently, I rewatched the entire series and found that I had mixed emotions about it. For one, the first season wasn't nearly as good as I'd remembered, and the second season wasn't nearly as bad. With analytical adult eyes, I was able to discern flaws that I never noticed as a 12-year-old, but also new virtues. Thus, the idea of reviewing the series sprang into my head as a way to exorcise the show from my subconscious.

Since the show is, as I mentioned, ostensibly set in the same universe as the film, I figured I'd review that first. I'm going to be reviewing it, and indeed all episodes of both seasons, in the context of the series as a whole, so it'll be slightly askew from a normal review of the film. Also, the series was pretty bad about continuity, one of the mortal sins for a Science Fiction television program. I'm going to note the continuity errors, but I'm making a conscious effort (I nearly wrote 'conscious error' - Freudian slip maybe?) to judge each story on its own merits even in the face of such discontinuities. These reviews will be a bit more abbreviated than my Transformers reviews, since I'm not sure how much interest there is. If you want me to go into greater depth, please say so on the comments pages. For the film, though, I felt that I couldn't shortchange it, so this review is quite detailed.

The War of the Worlds is an absolute classic film chronicling the invasion of Earth by Martians. It is loosely based on the H.G. Wells book by the same name, though the nameless journalist narrator has for the most part been replaced by Doctor Clayton Forrester. (This name was, of course, appropriated by Mystery Science Theater 3000 for their primary antagonist.)

Forrester, played by Gene Barry, is a congenial scientist who happens to be on a fishing trip near the site of a strange meteor that crashes to Earth. He's called in to investigate and immediately notes that an object of that size should have made a much larger crater. This implies that the object was either less massive than it should be or traveling more slowly than it should. As it turns out, it was both. The meteor was in fact a canister fired from another world, Mars the omniscient narrator informs us, and was merely the first of many. Forrester heads into town in the company of an adoring young lady, Sylvia van Buren as portrayed by Ann Robinson, with only a trio of deputies left behind to make sure that the glowing hot body doesn't start any more fires. We immediately get a sense for both of our primary protagonists. Barry plays Forrester as just a bit quirky but with penetrating intelligence. Van Buren is eager and cheerful and also sharp, though not quite as sharp as her hero Dr. Forrester. They have great chemistry together and help ground the film.

While the town makes merry, the deputies encounter the Martians for the first time. They note that a hatch on the celestial body is unscrewing itself and nervously chatter among themselves. A probe emerges, prompting them to slowly make their way forward. As they entreat the occupants of the probe to show themselves, they declare themselves friendly and welcome the men from another world to California. So as to make sure that their intentions are understood, they create a makeshift white flag and wave it about. The ominous probe regards them for a moment, then opens fire, obliterating them. In the town below, the discharge has caused power to go out, phone lines to die, and watches to become magnetized. Investigating what's happened causes Forrester and the sheriff to come under fire from the Martians. Forrester advises the sheriff to call the military. The whole bit with the deputies is also very well done. While they never become much more than some quick caricatures, they are earnest and friendly in the face of the unknown. The cavalier way the Martians dispatch them help set the tone for the rest of the film and, as it turns out, human / alien relations in the series. We are insects to them, to be exterminated without regard or pity.

Thus begins the invasion in earnest. All over the world, canisters are dropping. They fall in threes, with a pilot cylinder landing and guiding in two more. From each canister emerges three war machines. We're told that they're attacking all over the world, though the focus remains on the sleepy Californian town where the first cylinder landed. The army surrounds the three war machines, hovering wedges with a single protruding probe, and prepares to wage war against these hostile visitors from another world. Sylvia's uncle, pastor Collins, attempts to again make peaceful contact with the extra-terrestrial visitors. Muttering a litany of prayers, he walks forward, bible in hand. His extermination signals the start of a huge barrage against the craft. Guns, bombs, rockets, nothing is effective against the magnetic umbrella protecting the craft. The heat ray mercilessly blasts into our heavy artillery, while a disintegration ray takes our soldiers apart at the molecular level. The army has no choice but to withdraw, having lost 90% of its equipment and 60% of its manpower. The airforce fared worse - all planes sent in to bomb the war machines were obliterated. The extended bombardment of the war machines is one of the best in the movie, and probably responsible for the Best Special Effects Oscar this film earned. Pastor Collins death was also a good moment for the film; when offered a chance to back down from hostilities, the Martians didn't hesitate to throw down the gauntlet.

Forrester and van Buren, too, retreat, though when his private plane is downed they are forced to hole up in an abandoned farm. This proves less than safe, when a canister lands nearby. They send a small probe into the farmhouse and eventually get a good look at the humans, though Forrester chops off the tri-colored lens with an axe. This prompts a martian to investigate, giving us our only real look at a Martian. It's a bipedal creature with a large, cycloptic eye, though much smaller than a man. He wounds it and it retreats, though leaving him with a bit of Martian blood. As our heroes retreat, the war machine levels the farm. This scene doesn't hold up quite as well. The movement of the lens is shaky and abrupt, not in keeping with the magnetic elegance of the war machines. The eye of the Martian looks kind of silly - I think Pal was going for a vaguely camera-like appearance, but it looks fake to these skeptical 21st century eyes. The suckered fingers, though, are very nice.

With cities all over the world falling, the government prepares to take its most drastic step yet. A huge fission bomb was deployed against the machines, despite the risk of fallout to our own populace. When even this proved insufficient, desperation set in. Forrester was tasked with developing some way, any way, of fighting the aliens. He was told to evacuate the laboratories of the fictitious Pacific Institute of Technology to the mountains for this critical measure. However, he had a hard deadline - the complete destruction of all infrastructure was projected for six days hence. Sylvia notes that the world took as long to make as it will to destroy, continuing the religious undertones of the film.

Even this proved impossible. As he tried to evacuate the gear from the lab, a desperate mob of people pulled him from his truck and drove off with it. Barry turns in an excellent performance here, as he watches whatever tenous hope humanity had left torn from him. He then realizes that Sylvia, on a prior bus out of town, could easily have suffered a similar fate. His worst fears are confirmed when he sees a sign from the bus on the ground. Realizing that humanity is doomed to extinction, he has no other thought than reuniting with the woman who has recently come to mean so much to him. He eventually remembers a story she told of running away from home and taking sanctuary in a church. He goes from church to church, even as the war machines are leveling Los Angeles, until he finds her with the aliens just minutes away. The two of them desperately fight the crowd, intent only on dying in each others arms, and embrace as a heat ray strikes the stained glass of their not-so-safe-harbor. This scene is amazingly effective. The war machines are incredibly menacing, especially as they systematically raze Los Angeles. The sound effects are especially well done, Martian machines tsking and humming menacingly.

But, in a twist ending that's been ingrained into the consciousness of modern society, the war machines begin to crash - the martians begin to die. It seems that their immune systems were ill prepared to deal with the virulent bacteria of Earth. God, in his infinite wisdom, the omniscient narrator informs us, saw fit to populate the world with such creatures.

It's a powerful story. Barry and Robinson turn in powerhouse performances. Robinson goes a bit more hysterical than a modern actress would, but that was part of the style of the time. Their desperation, especially in their final moments, is palpable. Though the movie mostly focuses on California, there are enough scenes and newspapers from around the world to give the conflict a truly global feel. Humanity really seems on the verge of being wiped out. The utter failure of the atomic bomb to even dent one of the machines was a terrific moment.

There were also strong religious overtones to the movie, more so than in the book. The priest dying in a futile attempt to stave off disaster, seeking sanctuary in a church, and of course the miracle of humanity's salvation all conspire to give the sense of us surviving by divine grace alone. This aspect of the movie would be picked up on in both seasons of the show. Season one featured biblical verses as titles for every episode, and often featured aliens disguised as spiritual leaders. Season two would introduce The Eternal, the living god of the aliens and flipping the religious quotient from humans to aliens.

There is also just a bit of examination of the alien culture. They seem to be fixated on the number three, as all of their strategy is built around powers of three. This aspect, too, would be picked up on in the first season of the show.

Overall, this is a thoroughly excellent depiction of the near-extermination of humanity. The special effects, while primitive by today's standards, were top-notch for the day and still manage to hold up decently well for the war machines. (The alien and the lens seem fairly primitive, though.) In the context of the series that follows it, it almost does its job too well. Humanity is teetering on the brink here, something that never really comes across in the show. There are also several discontinuities, though of course none of that is the fault of the film. Still, the Martians of Pal's War of the Worlds are such a classic foe that the chance to examine more of them in a television format is almost too good to pass up.

I can't recommend the film enough - at $7 for the special edition, it's a steal. The commentary by Barry and especially Robinson is worth that alone.


Al Terry said...

I loved staying up late to watch the WOTW series when I was a teeny. I seem to remember being somewhat shocked by the slaughter of most of the cast at the start of the 2nd season, and how it went all dark and nasty.
I look forward to your reviews, even if everyone else just sits there as goes "what?"

Anonymous said...

So sad that Gene Barry died last week aged 90 - but good that this remains part of his best work.....