H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds

Copyright 2005 Bob Persons
June 28, 2005

I saw a DVD at Sam's Club titled H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Obviously wasn't the Tom Cruise movie (cost $8.26), and, not the 1953 movie (it had a 2005 date). So, with memories of the 1953 move, I had to add to my collection.

So let's go back to 1953. George Pal's movie was my first blockbuster.

I hadn't heard of H G Wells. Nor had I ever heard of the other Welles - Orson, and his 1938 radio horror story that drove people mad.

From the opening introduction showing red planet Mars with pinpricks of light lobbing from the surface toward the Earth and Sir Cedric Hardwicke speaking Wells' motivation for the Martian invasion, to the fantastic Martian war machines, to the destruction and salvation of Los Angeles (replacing Wells' London), I just had to see this movie again - 15 times, all told. Yes, parts of the plot were excruciatingly corny, the scientist meeting the other scientist's daughter and fleeing the Martians into a wrecked farmhouse together - pretty trite, and the gee whiz looks make me sink into the seat.

But those war machines! Where Wells had them perched atop three tentacled walking legs, these machines were updated to mid 20th century technology - the machines were supported by a tripod of green rays. And how about that heat ray (holdover of cutting edge technology at the end of the 19th century); Mounted on a tentacled stalk, revving up its charge with a rr-rr-rr-rrr every bit as terrifying as the knife in the Psycho shower, then blasting out its killing heat with a screeching whirring sound. The machines themselves were the most gorgeous expression of technological fantasy I had ever seen. Black, smooth, three-lobed, mounted on those spindly green rays. The lobes were curved beautifully; the machines resembled manta rays. They raised the heat ray on its tentacled stalk through an opening in the roof, deployed its scanner (another head on a tentacled stalk, but this head had the three-lobed eye) through a port in the bottom. The tips of the two side lobes had green lens caps which pulsed with color when revving up and spit out deadly green pulses which spectacularly vaporized everything in sight.

And the Martians themselves were another tour de force of imagination. Wells imagined them as spider-like, with 16 tentacles, flat face, two large eyes, brown and strange. The movie Martian looked more like ET (I'm sure Spielberg based his ET look on this movie's Martian). Brown, large head atop a small cobra-like body (similar to the structure of the heat ray and scanner tools). But whereas ET had two large, baby-like eyes, this Martian had a single giant three-colored eye. And it was anemic! The piece de resistance, however, was the suction cups on the ends of the six fingers. What boy could ever hope to sleep again, after seeing those suction cups on brown, leathery fingers curl onto the girl's shoulder? Well, maybe after seeing those fingers lethargically push open the hatch under the grounded ship, steam pouring out, and the fingers crawl laboriously just a couple feet and then go limp - the Martians dead from our bacteria.

I was inspired to invent my own story - War of the Universe. I got as far as a small story outline and a really cool 3-D drawing of a ray gun.

Sometime later I learned that the movie was not invented new.

It had been taken from an H G Wells novel. I had seen Wells' books in the library, but I had trouble reading novels, so I bypassed them for the science fiction short story collections. Seeing the tie to the movie, I tried the book, but I could read only a few chapters before calling it quits. It wasn't just the dyslexia. I couldn't get the movie images out of my skull, and that spoiled the book for me.

Yet later I happened to come across a story in the newspaper about Orson Welles' Halloween prank. Somehow I managed to get hold of the radio script. I read that through and ended up wondering how anyone could possibly believe that was a genuine news story about Martians invading New Jersey and wiping out the Soprano family! (Woops, a bit of time warp there, but you know what I mean.) Some actual American people reportedly committed suicide to avoid being enslaved by the Martians. So I went back and saw the movie again.

Who wouldn't want to see this movie 15 times? Bring it around and I'll see it again.

Now, about that $8.26 version.

One of the most bizarre movies I've ever seen. Looks like it was patched together on a home computer - lots of technical flaws and guffaws. But it was 3 hours long, apparently true to Wells' book, even set at the end of the 19th century, with Victorian clothes, horse-drawn carriages, an occasional new-fangled motor car, and lots of proper English spoken. Oh, and no green support rays, and no atomic bombs dropped.

Coming out at the same time, the Spielberg/Cruise movie, from the looks of the trailers, is probably full of cars flung into the air and bounding down the streets, buildings exploding. The 1953 movie had such violence, too, but certainly more subdued. In this $8.26 movie the violence was cardboard, but not emphasized far out of proportion to the story. And it had some pretty gruesome scenes which made my flesh crawl no less than if Hollywood had applied all its technological marvels at producing gushing blood and severed limbs and unmitigated terror.

Humans, with their intrepid, unmitigated curiosity, are drawn to examine the alien, not concerned that the alien might have no heart for us and is content to just get rid of us as swiftly as possible. Still, we descend into the pit and wave a white flag in an attempt to communicate with them, show them we're good guys who just want to talk. And then the vaporizing begins. And the rounding up of strays like cattle to feed the Martian maw.

This is in Britain. The Earth has been invaded. Martians are intent on exterminating the human race and there seems to be no way to stop them. So we'll discuss it over a nice wine. "I must proceed in haste." Escaping the Martians in a one-horse carriage.

And what's with all those brilliant orange bushes? ... Whoa! Those aint bushes, they're bright orange skeletons! No again, those are the "red weeds" that Wells said the Martians planted like alien Johnny Appleseeds. No direct mention of them by the characters; they're just there, all over the place.

Details - like the man in the street, on his knees, shepherding his suit cases and boxes and bags against the arms of others trying to pull him to safety from the Martian machines. "But this is valuable." Like a chicken gathering and fussing over her brood of chicks. "This is all valuable."

Not the Hollywood suffering (which is mostly the devastation of watching your precious SUV explode in front of your eyes). Rather, the suffering of humanity faced with cruel extinction, knowing all its virtues are of no account, doom is certain and full of misery right down to the last grotesque breath - and in the end humanity's ass is saved by sheer luck.

And through it all, man's age-old immortal quest - to find his woman!

Weird stuff.

On my DVD player, the visuals were jerky. Sometimes very brief pauses, sometimes a wholesale jump of the image forward a full second or more. A perusing of some Web commentary indicates this was intentional - to give the film a jerky early 20th century look.

Some scenes were monochrome, even though not depicting a nighttime scene. A bit disconcerting in the middle of the movie. Suddenly shifted from color to black and white. Reminded me of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. Part 1 was monochrome, as was the beginning of Part 2. Apparently Mr E discovered color halfway through Part 2 so he finished the film in color!

Some really weird juxtapositions of real life and animated images. Sometimes it was obvious that computer-generated images were patched onto images of real characters. Sometimes the animation was toy-like. Sure, the budget probably didn't allow for real battle ships and destroyers. But the animated versions of ships chasing the Martian machines over water, then sinking from a fatal puncture of the bow, were comic book images, and they didn't even show people on the decks.

Yet the Martians and their machines were stunningly realized. The 100- foot tall jointed stilts that supported the aluminum insect-like blaster heads and arms. The whirling disk that blinded and spat out killer heat rays. The glowing green pads on the bottoms of their "feet" (was that a serial number I saw there? or some instructions - in Martian - to maintenance?). The spider-like machine that seemed to be an executive officer of some sort. The flying machine (Wells' pet marvel of the future) that looked much like our Stealth. The truly creepy many-limbed devices that seemed to examine humans inside and out (like the "Taken" crowd claims has happened onboard UFOs) before delivering them to be sucked dry by the Martian masters.

The ending credits showed a date of MMDCCLVIII. Now, what year in our numbering scheme do you suppose that translates to? I figure 2758. Hmmm. The date on the box is MMV.

Some links.

The movie web site: http://www.pendragonpictures.com/WOTWKEY.html

I read this review just after writing the above: http://www.sfcrowsnest.com/features/arc/2005/nz8272.php

Picture of downed war machine: http://www.pendragonpictures.com/WOTWpicSpecial.html

A musical version! http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/film/features/story.jsp?story=646503

The George Pal movie (1953).http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046534/

The Steven Speilberg/Tom Cruise movie, also released this month.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407304/

Yet another film version released this month! http://www.theasylum.cc/cgi-bin/showMovie.cgi?id=10

And another Web site: http://www.waroftheworldsmovienews.com/


Postscript 1, 2005-0721

Postscript 2, 2005-0812


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