I’ll Explain Later…
I don’t even know how to begin. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m not even sure this exists. Seriously. Google tells me nothing (You get hits, but they lead mostly to stubs, someone’s video production class project, or archives of a forum post from someone preemptively clarifying that they weren’t talking about that one. The one they were thinking of is Without Warning). IMDB tells me nothing. There’s no copyright date. There’s not even a title card. If it weren’t for the Netflix listing on it, I’d probably have concluded that I’d imagined the whole thing*.
It doesn’t really feel like a movie. I guess if I had to nail down what it feels like, I’d say at the most a DVD Bonus Feature. No, not even that. You know what this feels like? You know how sometimes in movies, there will be a TV on in the background showing something related to the main narrative to help sell the idea that these events are really happening and having an effect on the world? Like when Steve Bacic briefly played The Beast in X2: X-Men United, or when Larry King plays Larry King in pretty much any movie. It feels like that. Like they filmed this to be on in the background of some other movie, but for no clear reason — maybe they needed lots of spare footage for the editors or something — decided to film a whole movie’s worth of footage. Director Rod Pyle is also credited with an episode of UFO Files about The War of the Worlds dating from around the same time, and a History Channel documentary the following year, so I suppose it’s possible that this was, like, some kind of outgrowth of that? I mean, this movie does not feel quite intentional. Can you make a movie by accident?
The thing we’re talking about today is the 2005 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds. No, not that one. No, not that one either. No, not even that one. Starting to get the feeling that something was Up in 2005? This one is actually, when you get down to it, more an adaptation of the 1938 radio play: it’s presented as a newscast from a presumably small California station, but unlike Invasion from Mars, they maintain the artifice for the entire running length.
Frankly, we’re already in trouble here. I more often hang out back in 1987 where this isn’t so much of a big deal, but we’re in 2005. The film is entirely in 4×3, which is period-accurate; few news programs shifted to 16×9 before 2006, and it was still the most common format for local news until at least 2009, but as early as the late ’90s, local news had started shooting for a kind of ersatz “big-budget” look. When my local UPN affiliate started up in the mid-90s, one of their gimmicks was that the newscasters did the 10 o’clock news in formalwear. Your typical 2005 local newscast may not have been filmed in High Definition, but you’d typically expect professional-grade lighting and camerawork, and an actual set, usually consisting of a big wood desk and a matte painting skyline. You’d also expect intertitles and transitions, and since we’re after September, 2001, you’d expect the ubiquitous news crawl. Instead we get this. A pair of yoyos in front a greenscreen whose only purpose is to show a generic blue pattern with an occasional globe. I mean, for all the good it does, they could have filmed it in front of a sheet. I mean, the did film it in front of a sheet. But they could have used a blue one instead of filming in front of a green sheet and turning it blue in post. It isn’t shot like news, but it also isn’t shot like a film. I don’t know. What it doesn’t at all feel is modern. Not even modern-cheap. Not even retro-cheap. This feels like it was made by a local, unaffiliated station in the 1980s. And not even as news, really. I don’t know. I don’t have words. The closest thing I can think of is the little five-minute news and financial digests the local PBS station would put on between British imports to make the next program start on the half-hour twenty-five years ago, but even that had a distinctly different texture to it. And, y’know, those highly identifiable Video Toaster effects. Without Warning managed to get the texture right ten years earlier (The only thing I really recall finding distinctly wrong in Without Warning was the “We lost the feed from the field correspondent and cut to static” bits, because as it turns out, faking realistic static-snow was bizarrely difficult using 1990s video technology).
But I won’t trash it too much. I mean, I’ve watched enough terrible movies to identify the most basic levels of filmmaking competence. It’s not like it was shot on a VHS Handicam or anything. The audio quality is good (except when there’s an in-story reason for it not to be), and while the visual texture and style fails to look like the thing it’s supposed to be, it does look like something. Things are in focus. The actors don’t mumble. No one gets attacked by an animated GIF of a bird. I’m saying that Rod Pyle is better at making movies than James Nguyen or Scott Shaw, at least insofar as he seems to have a basic grasp of how the general concept of what you should end up with when you are done making a movie and which end of the camera is which. I mean, he’s no Tommy Wiseau, but still.
It’s not good, is what I’m getting at. It’s watchable, but only just. I mean, it’s not physically painful to watch. We’ll be getting most of our story from these two Channel 3 news anchors, Dave Douglas and Cheryl Storm (Credit where it’s due. That is a fantastic local news anchor name). Insofar as this narrative has a protagonist, Gideon Emery’s Dave is it. And that’s a real shame for multiple reasons, the first of which is that he’s terrible. That’s odd, since I looked him up on IMDb, and out of all the cast, he’s the one with an actual resume, having appeared in the modern Teen Wolf series, and having a long history as a video game voice actor, playing such iconic characters as John Connor and Trevor Belmont. But calling him wooden would be an insult to marionettes. I get what he’s going for, the old-fashioned hardcore-staid network newscaster who has to maintain utter unflappability. But he just can’t carry it off: rather than stoic, he seems unengaged. If you look back at Orson Welles’s radio play, the reporters there are all stoic and go out of their way not to convey emotion, but they still manage to convey intensity. The way they speed up or slow down, little catches in their voices, all work together to convey that this is SRS BSNS. Dave doesn’t have the gravitas for what he’s attempting. Instead of stoic, he comes off like he doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of what he’s reporting. And not even a “This is too big for me to process,” lack-of-seriousness; it’s more like he just doesn’t care. It’s the kind of disingenuous, “Thanks, Bob. And now, over to Mike for the weather,” kind of tone you’d expect if he were reporting on some fluff local-interest story that wasn’t even especially cute or heartbreaking. It’s almost parody, like a bored newsman trying and failing to show enthusiasm for the one hundred and thirtieth “Beloved family pet rescued from dangerous situation” story — parody, because in my experience, even very seasoned newscasters can usually manage to whip up some realistic “Aww, cute kitty,” or at least a sense of novelty at getting to report on something pleasant for once.
Caroline Do’s Cheryl is much the same. While I call Dave the lead character, she gets almost as much screen time and dialogue. I think. I’m not going to watch this whole movie again with a stopwatch to compare their relative number of lines. But as the story goes on, I think the direction shows a mild preference for him over her, and she gets her One Big Emotional Line and exits the story a few minutes before him. I actually think she’s a little better on the acting front too, as she’s clearly playing a slightly different archetype, a female newscaster who’s still staid and stoic and serious, but is allowed to show a bit more emotion. In a sense, I think one of the roles of the specifically female newscaster in this setting is to help make the audience care about the news in a way the traditional male newscaster doesn’t (I mean, Walter Cronkite could make you care about paint drying, but he was, to be blunt, really fucking good at his job). It’s a kind of ugly and sexist trope, but it’s had the net effect of putting a lot more female professionals in television news roles so I’ll let people who are better qualified than I am complain about it.
After approximately five seconds of them setting up the idea of a “meteor” strike in Mojave the previous weekend, they toss to our third character, Tiffany Heinsbocker in the field. Bree Pavey is far and away the best actor in this thing, and it’s weird that she’s apparently never done anything else (There’s an actress of the same name in IMDb, but she doesn’t look to be the same person) except for a web-based Feng Shui series for a content portal site that looks like its database crashed some time ago. She gets top billing in the credits, so maybe she is meant to be the lead, but her scenes, while the best thing in here, make up a comparatively small part of the narrative, such as it is. She reports on the gathering excitement surrounding the meteor crash, which is demonstrated by… The camera passing over a mountain, and a clip of some boy scouts running a lemonade stand. And at this point, you pretty much know what the deal is going to be with this movie. They’re going to combine “Tell, don’t show” with “Also none of these people are ever going to get a clear understanding of what’s going on”. We’re in for fifty-one minutes of being shown mostly nothing while mediocre actors deliberately avoid telling us what the hell is going on. This is practically an anti-movie. Tiffany interviews a bored child who would rather be watching TV. You and me both, kid.
But you know what? She sells it. I’m willing to believe, at least this far, that I’m watching a field reporter for a small TV station, who knows this story is big, but doesn’t have the access to actually report anything meaningful, and the chagrin in her voice when, for want of anything better to do, she ends up pestering a boy scout, seems legit. She does assure us that the crash site is an impressive sight to behold “even from here”, though her cameraman dutifully shows us nothing that could even remotely be described as “interesting”.
We get a few homages to other adaptations of the story here too: the bored boy scout’s name is “Grover”, an allusion to Grover’s Field, the landing site in Orson Welles’s 1938 version. Scientists studying the meteor are identified as being from the fictional “Pacific Tech”, and are led by “Clayton Fielding”, references to Doctor Clayton Forrester, the hero of the 1953 George Pal film. She interviews Fielding, who is no help at all: he tells us the same thing that Tiffany has already told us twice (and, for that matter, that Clayton Forrester told us in 1953 and Richard Pearson told us in 1938): the meteor is hollow. He goes on to tell us, again twice that meteors normally are solid metal or stone. Tiffany does throw out the ET question, which I think is a good move: I imagine there was a strong temptation to have everyone play coy about that, the same way that no one in a zombie movie has ever heard of zombies, and frankly, I’d find it interminable if someone didn’t come right out with, “Hey, is this aliens?” They’re not going to do anything with it, but at least it’s there. Fielding misses the obvious response, of course, since this movie never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. He merely laughs the idea off rather than saying that the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one (they say).
Tiffany tosses back to Dave, and then I guess we cut to commercial.
After the commercial, Dave tosses back to Tiffany, who’s now standing beside a police truck and wearing Chekov’s radiation badge, though I ought to ask someone with working color-vision what it looks like, because I am utterly underwhelmed by how the green/red distinction comes out on-screen. She manages to score an interview with a General Guerro, who, in accordance with how this thing is going, pretty much just repeats what Tiffany has already told us: the National Guard has sent some folks up into the pit, they may need to push the reporters and onlookers back soon, and there’s been “some signs of activity” near the meteor. He says this is “just routine,” a phrase which, for some reason, really enchants my son. He seems a little flustered and a little incredulous, at first like he doesn’t believe the words that are coming out of his mouth. When Tiffany presses him to elaborate on the alleged “activity”, he suddenly gets evasive, but it’s the kind of evasiveness I’d associate less with “He knows something and isn’t telling,” and more with “He’s lost the next page in the script.” All the same, if they actually did something with this, it could really salvage the movie, playing up the idea of the people in power having something to hide. But that’s a very hard angle to sell without dropping the kayfaybe and stepping outside the “Breaking News” artifice, and to this movie’s credit, they are 110% committed to this narrative frame. That’s sixty percent more than Orson Welles was, keep in mind.
The general is called away with some news that visibly troubles him, and the police relocate Tiffany, forcing her to toss back to Dave and Cheryl, who share a good-natured forced chuckle over the idea of it being aliens. In a not-very-convincing attempt to make it seem more like a regular newscast and not The Plot Development Channel, Dave drops a news item about the President dismissing the latest Kyoto accord as “hogwash” and commissioning oil drilling in Yosemite. Cheryl tries to impersonate a human being by suggesting that will, “Teach those bears a lesson,” and Dave is clearly kind of scandalized by the statement. His lips say, “Yes, I guess it will, Cheryl,” but his head nod says, “What the fuck are you thinking? It’s a national treasure!”
After another ident break, we’re treated to breaking news of a disaster near Malibu. Well, sorta. We slip into “Don’t show, don’t tell” mode for a bit as instead of actually telling us about the disaster, Cheryl gives us a stilted, poorly-phrased recap of “recent events”, which consists of some new information: several large meteors fell to Earth “last week” in an annual meteor shower (She presents the fact that it’s a regular annual meteor shower as though this too is new information to the audience), one off the coast near Malibu, one in Mojave, “two in Europe and Africa”, with two unconfirmed in Russia and a third unconfirmed in the Sierra Nevadas. Which seems like the Martians have a disproportionate interest in the greater Los Angeles area. Fair enough, I guess, since Angel Grove got invaded by aliens pretty much once a week from 1992 to 1998. Cheryl follows this new information up with stuff we’ve been told multiple times: the meteors are hollow, radioactive, and magnetic. “Beyond that, we know nothing.” Nothing at all, beyond the three minute recap we were just subjected to.
The invisible earpiece Dave is wearing informs him about a plane crash, though there’s, “No reason to suspect terrorism.” We finally get to the “disaster in Malibu” when Dave hands off to the fourth member of their news-almost-reporting team, Harvey Levelle (Wayne Brian). Harvey going for a deliberately hateable sort of guy, over-dressed, over-made-up, oozing a strong “Used Car Salesman” vibe, with his hair so shellacked that he’s halfway to looking like Max Headroom. He shows us the seen of carnage and devastation in Malibu. Or rather, doesn’t, since he just shows us a perfectly ordinary stretch of Pacific coast. Harvey explains, smugly (Why smug? I have no fucking clue), that “something” rose up out of the water and walked off down Pacific Coast Highway.
What? We’re not going to see it. We’re not going to get a description (Not much of one, anyway). Of course not. Don’t show, don’t tell. Harvey uses an OpenGL cube transition to show us a clip of an interview with a local, who explains that, mere minutes ago, a wall of water rose up over this bone-dry stretch of coastline as something “Like a crane. A big mechanical crane. Like a monster,” rose out of the water. Harvey challenges him on the matter of it being a mechanical crane with the most urgency and passion anyone has, in the history of the world, ever asked someone if something was a mechanical crane. Maybe he’s supposed to be challenging someone he thinks is unhinged, but it doesn’t quite come off. The interviewee storms off in a panic, and present-Harvey explains that paramedics took him off for “observation”.
Now, of course, a lot can change in nine years. But even in 2005, it kinda beggars the imagination to suppose that a giant crane-monster capable of generating a tsunami could come ashore in Malibu without anyone snapping a grainy cellphone picture of it. The lack of one does kind of justify Harvey being kind of smug and incredulous. Assuming that’s what he’s going for and not just “I’m a giant dickbag”. He tosses over to their traffic reporter, Lisa Elfman, who reports from her traffic helicopter as she watches some stock footage of an aircraft carrier pulling up to the coast. I will note that your typical news helicopter has a range of about 300 nautical miles and a top speed around 100 knots. I know very little about aircraft carriers, but I am fairly sure that one of the advantages of having a giant honking boat that can launch airplanes is that you do not have to get all that close to the thing you want to blow up, so it kinda strikes me as unlikely that a traffic copter would just happen upon them.
When Harvey finally kicks it back to Dave and Cheryl, needing time to recharge the batteries in his smarm, Dave tries to crack wise about the possibility of someone catching “California’s Nessie” on film. Cheryl just sort of sits there with a look of dull surprise, presumably because hearing Dave make light of the situation made her realize how flat her grizzly bear joke fell.
She receives a telepathic message that the airplane crash from the last scene was actually two plane crashes, which seems like kind of a big mistake to make. Dave responds by declaring it to be Friday night, and kicking it over to some stock footage of parked airplanes and a faceless voice explaining how all the flights out of LAX are grounded, and travelers should call to reschedule. Dave makes one last noble stab at passing for human by trying to lighten the mood by declaring it a zoo at the airport, then seamlessly transitions to telling us that Homeland Security has raised the threat level to
“Tell Your Wife You Love Her NOW“ red.
Tiffany calls Dave on his invisible earphone, and he kicks over to her, still wearing same red outfit and radiation badge from her last appearance, which rules out the possibility of there being large time gaps when they go to commercial. She’s relocated to firemen training on a condemned motel that’s been partially demolished, which will be playing the role of the extreme devastation at an apartment complex. She has to shout at her cameraman not to film the dead bodies that aren’t there, because it’s tasteless and against this film’s stylistic conceit of never ever showing us anything interesting.
Back at the studio, Dave confirms that the two crashed planes belonged to Universal Airlines and Western Pacific. I can’t say I’m surprised that the planes that crashed when they were being flown by, respectively, an airline that hasn’t existed since 1972 and a railroad. He’s interrupted by a press release from an FAA director, who tells us all the things we’ve just heard about a dozen times, but throws in the fact that an EMP was detected near both crash sites. Dave asks Cheryl if there’s any more news, and she reminds us for about the fifth time that there are still no survivors.
We toss back to Tiffany, who’s in Mojave again. She looks momentarily alarmed when we cut to her, presumably because she’s trying to work out how she managed to teleport the thirty miles from Palmdale to Mojave in the past two minutes. She reconciles the paradox by assuming she’d never left, and just continues as though she’s simply reporting in after having been moved back from the meteor impact crater again. She dutifully blames the airplane sounds which keep rendering her audio inaudible on B-1 and B-2 bombers flying to the impact site. In a rare attempt to actually show us something, Tiffany has her cameraman do the world’s least convincing transition, sweeping the camera upward as they do a quick dissolve to some stock footage of three F-14s, that Tiffany thinks are all one plane. While teleporting back to Mojave, she also had time to interview an official, who, off the record, gave her the news tidbit that there was “some kind of activity” in the pit. This is about the fourth time they’ve acted as if declaring that “something happened” without further elaboration is actually news.
While Tiffany is relocated again, Harvey treats us to some stock footage of Marines on training exercises, pretending that it’s relevant. We rejoin Tiffany about five feet to the left, having put her hair up. She’s finally willing to commit to Shit Going Down now, as she’s gotten confirmation that “something” (Now that we’re taking things seriously, no one’s going to come right out and call them aliens until near the end) in the pit attacked the military, prompting the bombing, and now more soldiers are being trooped in, some, Tiffany confesses (as some soldiers just kind of run across the desert behind her), just kind of running across the desert.
We get a press conference from a White House Press Secretary who’s really poorly composited in front of a literal blank blue curtain with the White House seal floating above him. They seriously couldn’t just film him in front of an actual blue curtain and had to greenscreen him there? And I mean, this is seriously bad compositing, we’re talking early 1970s Doctor Who-bad. The only thing he tells us that we didn’t already know is that a meteor landed on the east coast near Grover’s Mills. Cheryl comments that the evacuations are “surely a surprise,” a weird little turn of phrase.
Harvey breaks his smug the next time they throw to him, when the camera shakes very gently from an imaginary explosion, but recovers quickly and still manages to sound incredulous about reports of “giant robots” leaving “death and destruction” even as we continue to hear the sounds of fighter craft and shelling. Dave kind of smirks at this report and cautions the viewers that Harvey was indulging in “speculation”. Dave, Cheryl and Harvey all seem to vacillate from scene to scene and even line to line on just how seriously they’re taking this. I mean, at this stage, it’s not like there’s any actual doubt that the military is engaged in multiple attacks on something in California. Sure, maybe you don’t believe it’s giant alien robots, but I think a reaction of “Ha ha ha, how fanciful!” is more than a little out-of-line. I mean, at this point, what would be a reasonable explanation? If anything, “It’s terrorists. Who can call down meteor strikes,” seems even more pants-crapping than “It’s aliens.”
The lone exception to this is Tiffany, the only one who seems to consistently take things progressively more and more seriously as events unfold. She tries to get some information out of General Guerro, but he brushes her off, and her frustration looks genuine. That said, as before, she seems to be obsessing a bit with the military-porn details. She begs one question out of the general, and it’s to ask what kind of munitions the bombers were carrying. I mean, yeah, it would indeed be big news if came down to nukes, but you know what question has neither been asked nor answered yet? What the fuck is the thing in the pit?
Suddenly, the army is pulling back and Tiffany reports that she’s been ordered to evacuate just before an explosion throws her to the ground and they lose the feed. Though to spare the audience from experiencing any actual suspense, they get it right back before Tiffany can even finish buttoning up her shirt. Which she’d unbuttoned for some reason. She must have fallen on some ketchup packets or something because her temple and eyebrow are dotted with it.
This is like the one unqualified good scene in the whole thing. Tiffany is shaken. She’s confused. She’s scared. She doesn’t know what the explosion was. And as she buttons her jacket, she looks at her badge.
And she says nothing. Because there aren’t any words. They’re never going to say it, never acknowledge it. But she just said she didn’t know what that explosion was, and then she looked down and saw that she’d been exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation. Her voice catches as she relates that the fleeing soldiers are shouting that “It’s coming”. And then she freaking legs it.
Unfortunately, this development takes Tiffany out of the narrative for a few minutes, so we’re stuck with the yo-yos back in the studio. The last of our yo-yos to be introduced is Will Knight, channel 3’s military consultant. He’s not great, but I think he works a good bit better than the others. He comes off as someone who doesn’t really have any practical newscasting experience, but is rather just a retired soldier who happened into this job because he knew someone. He has a fairly commanding presence, but not one that’s honed to the screen. He reports on military movements in Russia in a scene that goes on far too long before new satellite photos come in revealing really fake-looking fifty-mile-wide clouds over the meteor impact sites which Will identifies as nuclear explosions. Again, there’s a bit of obsession with the minutiae of military operations, with Dave’s first thought being to ask Will for an estimate of the size of the nuclear warheads (ten to twenty megatons, “as big as they come”), rather than, y’know, “Holy shit, Russia just nuked itself!” They blame the EMP of the detonations for knocking out satellites in the area, to excuse them not having to report any more news from Russia.
They get a videophone call from their UK field correspondant (Because channel 3 has one of those), who reports on an attack she doesn’t have any real information about in Woking, the site of the first Martian attack in the original novel. Just like every other piece of this thing, they’re interested in talking about the military response, about the fires, about the evacutions, but the reports all seem singularly uninterested in actually getting any information about what’s going on. Yes, I understand the idea that no one’s getting close enough to report back on the nature of the attackers, but the newscasters don’t even bother to ask most of the time, and even seem dismissive of any attempt to bring the subject around to the, y’know, big mechanical death machines stalking the countryside.
When we finally get back to Tiffany, she’s managed to regain most of her composure and wiped most of the ketchup off her forehead. She doesn’t really know anything new, but it feels really legit: in the heat of the moment, she does panic and lose her composure, but she recovers quickly. Harvey, on the other hand, is back to smarmy. He talks over some forest fire stock footage, again, more concerned with stuff like the damage the fire is causing than the whole “Aliens are invading” angle, before he’s forced to relocate because of encroaching smoke.
I think I get the gist of what they’re going for here; they’re harkening back to the endless newsgasm after the 9/11 attacks, where newscasters didn’t know anything but felt compelled to keep newsing at us as hard as they could anyway. But at least then, they were trying to get us some news about what had happened and why. Also, it didn’t actually take that long for us to get the basic gist of what had happened. This is… It’s like if the news channels on 9/11 were unable to determine that airplanes had been involved. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m talking out my ass here, and the news coverage really was this random, minutiae-obsessed and big-picture-blind, and it just seems different now because of the decade of time in the middle. But one thing I’m dead sure of is that the initial coverage actually had something to show us. Over and over again. A continuous loop of disaster-porn that lasted for days, and talking heads threatening disproportionate retaliation and calling for undesirables to be rounded up.
The press secretary cuts in again to tell us… Nothing new. They cut over to Tiffany, who contradicts the press secretary on one point: she reports that the military is pulling back, not standing their ground as he’d claimed. Like Harvey, she’s been cautioned about smoke as well, and is preparing to head for the hills. Dave takes over when Tiffany starts having trouble with her link-up, and then there’s an odd visual glitch.
We’ll be seeing it again later. They get Tiffany back, and she explains that their truck has died, leaving them stranded until the military can give them a lift. Though she’s regained most of her compsure, she’s started having trouble with her words, flubbing lines with increasing frequency. It’s a surprisingly realistic depiction of a reporter struggling to keep it together under stress. She comes closer to cracking when she sees soldiers in the distance donning biowarfare suits as thick black smoke rolls across the battlefield, and her expression is good enough that I almost forget to be annoyed that her cameraman doesn’t just turn the camera to the left and show us this.
When they lose Tiffany’s signal, Will gets a chance to report on some troop movements, but Tiffany’s intrepid cameraman has somehow found a payphone out in the desert in 2005, allowing her to return via low-resolution videophone, her face now partially hidden by a really flat-looking post-production smoke effect. As the gunfire dies down, Tiffany starts to panic again while she struggles to put on a gas mask, then finally falls, choking, out of frame. Her intrepid cameraman manages to hold the camera stock-still as he too presumably succumbs to the black smoke and dies, moving, like a weeping angel, only during a brief moment when the camera feed is replaced by static, to rest at an angle on the ground for a brief shot of Tiffany’s limp body. It’s really all downhill from here, folks, because we’ve got another twelve minutes or so, but they’ve killed off the most interesting and dynamic character in this thing*.
After a moment of confusion, Dave asks Will if he’s still there. This will be hilarious in a few minutes, and Will seems pissed off by the question. Cheryl interrupts their speculation on the nature of the black smoke with an awkward “Hold it guys!” followed by about a second of silence while the camera gets its act together and cuts to her, still frozen in a hands-out “wait a second” gesture. She’s telepathically intuited that they have audio of a 911 call, wherein a boy named Connor utterly fails to realistically portray a child panicking over his dead parents in a smoke-filled house. He announces that something is at the door, then screams, “It burns! It burns! Mommy!” The scene would be chilling if it had felt anything like genuine. I know from the credits that it actually is a child actor (the same one who played the bored boy scout), but if I didn’t know that, I’d swear it was an adult adopting a fake child voice. I’ve heard panicked 911 calls from children whose parents are in danger. The fact that I just thought about one is probably going to ruin my night’s sleep. This is not convincing.
A shellshocked Cheryl explains that hundreds of similar calls have been recorded. One last time, we throw to Harvey via videophone, who smarms insincere concern for Tiffany. Harvey’s relocated to somewhere “far from the battle zone” but still “inside the battle perimeter,” and is the first person to identify the source of the attacks with something as specific as “Strange invaders”, and a minute later, finally, as “aliens”. He too is overcome by the smoke, using his last few minutes to wax eloquent about the “brave, brave troops,” and, “The finest America has to offer.” We get another one of those strange visual glitches.
The cat being out of the bag, everyone can start calling them aliens. Dave tries to calm the audience, while Will has somehow gotten in touch with “sources inside the military” to learn that the alien war machines can generate EMPs, the source of the various transmission glitches and lost connections. A soldier who’s fled the front lines calls the station and finally Dave asks someone about the nature of the invaders. According to Private Washington, they’re, “Huge. Horrible. They must be at least 200 feet tall.” He insists that the military can’t hold the line or repel the invaders, outraging Will, who is confident otherwise. A presumed alien advance kills Private Washington, still on the line, and Cheryl finally loses it and simply runs off-stage.
Dave, now pretty shellshocked himself, looks to Will for hope. Will angrily insists that the command must still have things in hand. A piss-poor George Bush impersonator (the same actor who’d previously played the press secretary) delivers a message of hope and no information from his undisclosed location, but his message is cut off with another video glitch. Dave’s chyron (The title graphic displayed in the lower third of the screen, named for the maker of a popular 1970s digital character generator) now reads, “Breaking news: Earth invaded by aliens”, and there’s some trouble even with the studio signal now, as Dave’s color balance is all wrong.
He tries to regain his composure, but loses it again when the building shakes and his greenscreen gives out. Will, who we finally now see is literally sitting next to Dave and has been the whole time, identifies the explosion as a nuclear detonation. He gets his PA to summon a traffic map, showing… Traffic. Another building-shake prompts Will to announce, “They’re here, Dave.”
Dave once again uselessly asks, “Are you still here?” to Will, and then, “Is there anything we should do?”
Will is now loading a handgun, and explains, “No. Just try to go with dignity. It’s them. Just breathe, Dave. Nothing anyone can do now.” As smoke starts to fill the studio, Will puts the gun to his temple and we cut back to Dave as a very muted gunshot sound effect plays. Dave shouts, “Oh God! It burns! It burns!” as the studio gives way to the movie’s money-shot:
Our one and only look at the aliens, before the screen changes to what we should probably now realize is a Martian channel ident card (Which it now occurs to me looks kinda like a pie. Specifically, this pie.), then to a test pattern, and finally an old fashioned CRT-winking-off effect.
This movie is weird. It’s wrong in so many ways. It’s probably on-paper the worst adaptation of The War of the Worlds I’ve ever seen (though I reserve the right to revise that judgment very shortly). And yet it has a certain charm and earnestness to it. Bree Pavey’s Tiffany Heinsbocker is an absolute delight. Will Knight’s final breakdown is painfully cliche, but he carries it off well. And even Dave, who is generally terrible, right at the end, gets a fairly good scene where he has to keep ordering himself to keep it together.
Most of the cast are just terribly misjudged in their performance. They never seen serious at the right time, or try to lighten the mood at the right time, or react with the proper amount of either gravitas or horror in response to things. And the whole character of Harvey is utterly misguided. I think maybe they were going for a kind of self-aggrandizing hotshot who’s trying to get himself noticed for bigger things, but after maybe one scene of him, he’s utterly inappropriate. The absolute worst is his reaction to Tiffany’s death, which just seems so plastic and rehearsed that I’d be rooting for him to die, except that his death ends up kinda upstaging Tiffany’s.
This might be the first time that I’ve found myself complaining about an independent film for being too unambitious. We get one CGI FX shot at the very end, and a few seconds of military stock footage a few more seconds of forest fire stock footage, and one photoshop smoke effect, and the rest of the time, it’s just people telling us, in not very much detail, about destruction that we either can’t see, or which contradicts what we can see.
The real problem here is with the narrative itself. Like, you notice what’s missing from this? The bit at the end where the Martians all keel over from common Earth-bacteria. Which is close to being the whole thematic punch line of the story, but here it’s just absent. The bulk of the narrative is spent with our news reporters reporting over and over again that they don’t actually know anything. Even leaving aside the idea that they’d be reluctant to declare the invaders to be extraterrestrial (which is defensible, but even so, in the real world, the news would have been dominated by speculation, with talking heads shouting why is obviously was or was not aliens. And Fox News “Just asking questions” whether or not Obama might secretly be an alien himself), they story here is that the US Military is engaged in maneuvers against multiple enemy targets on American soil, and yet the reporters are coy even about that. It’s all about them not having much information, and there being “unconfirmed reports” of “activity”. They put off actually saying “We are under attack by a hostile force” for just as long as they put off saying “It’s invaders from Mars,” and they try to keep playing as “The reporters don’t realize that these events are related and add up to something important,” well past the point where any reasonable person could be that dense. Further, all we ever see of the “destruction”, until that final money-shot, is one not-very-burnt-down apartment complex. We’re only a few minutes into the story when, allegedly, a two hundred foot tall crane-like machine rises up out of the pacific ocean and walks down a major highway. That is a dumb thing to write into your story at the 15 minute mark, and then proceed to not have anyone see it, snap a picture, or even confirm the report. There’s a news helicopter in the area, but it goes off to watch stock-footage of a carrier group instead.
And the carrier group reminds me of another of this movie’s strange foibles: the way that the reporters keep acting as though the exact details of military operations are the real story. The copter covering the carriers instead of going to look for the war machine. Tiffany asking about the munitions being sent into the pit rather than the thing inside it. Tiffany’s speculation with her cameraman over the types of bombers. Will Knight’s detailed analysis of Russian troop movements, and speculation on the exact yield of the bombs used in Siberia. The fact that channel 3 has a chief military reporter at all. You see this sort of thing a lot with folks like Tom Clancy or Michael Bay (Though Bay’s military fetishism isn’t as detail-oriented), but, y’know, Rod Pyle is no Tom Clancy. Or Michael Bay even.
But you know what? Why should he have to be? This isn’t a big studio release. I don’t even know what this is. I did a little research on Rod Pyle. Amazon informs me that he’s written an assortment of nonfiction books about NASA, primarily focused on the Apollo missions and on the exploration of Mars. He’s written for The Huffington Post and Conscious Life News about NASA and Mars, He wrote and directed some episodes of The History Channel’s Modern Marvels, including one about Apollo 11. He’s also a ghostwriter, specializing in helping subject-matter experts render their expertise into nonfiction books.
I think what we’re looking at here is nothing stranger than a space-enthusiast who’s skilled as a non-fiction writer and documentary filmmaker turning his hand to one particular story that he has a particular fondness for, and trying to make something fun that’s a little outside his comfort zone. Maybe he made it just for his portfolio, something to show clients. Maybe it was a class project. I don’t know. The only really weird thing is that it somehow ended up on a DVD that Netflix was willing to send me.
Do I recommend this? I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to. It’s not “bad movie good”, in that there isn’t really any incompetence to laugh at, except maybe Harvey. I can’t really say, “If you’re into that sort of thing,” because then I’d have to try to come up with an explanation of what “that sort of thing” is. It’s not really experimental enough for someone who’s into experimental filmmaking. Okay, you know whose cup of tea this might be? If you’re the kind of person who likes educational short films. That’s sort of what this feels like, now that I think about it. Like maybe something you’d show a High School Journalism class: show a clip, and have them identify stuff like the chyron and the intertitles and discuss technique and voice and greenscreening and whatever.
Maybe that’s why I ultimately ended up enjoying this; I actually kind of dig that sort of thing. I like narratives in things that don’t primarily exist to be narratives. The corporate ethics training video with its storyline about intrigues among the employees slowly escalating until someone accidentally commits a federal crime. The anti-drug PSA about a teenager transported to fantasy world to fight video game-style monsters representing drug dealers. The teen high school soap opera to introduce the Spanish words for objects found around the classroom. And of all the things I’ve experienced, that’s what Breaking News feels the most like. Like the actual narrative of this short film is actually beside the point of it.
I just wish I knew what the point actually was. Which is what I thought was going to be the coda to this post, but then something finally turned up in my research. See, from a narrative perspective, Breaking News drives me up a wall, because, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, they killed off Tiffany before the final act…
Or did they? In my research on Rod Pyle, I turned up the website of his media consultancy. There’s no references to Breaking News there, but something else is…
This trailer, dated 2012, is composed almost entirely of footage from Breaking News — theres a few new bits of stock-footage, and the tripod animation isn’t the mushroom-style one from Breaking News but rather from Pyle’s documentary Beyond War of the Worlds, a hybrid of the book-described mechanical tripod and the gooseneck design from George Pal’s 1953 film. But skip ahead to 5:07. But Tiffany is not dead, and has learned a terrible secret. Yes. Here I was about to say “Oh, what a lucky coincidence that Rod Pyle happened to have all this useful War of the Worlds footage around when it came time to make this,” and then the trailer goes around and reveals that Tiffany Heinsbocker is the main character of the book. The implication here is that Battlefront is deliberately a sequel to Breaking News. (Or, contrariwise, Breaking News is a prequel to Battlefront).
And it’s not like there aren’t hints of the Battlefront plot in Breaking News. The idea that the military is hiding something comes across very clearly, particularly in the conflicting reports about the use of nuclear weapons.
And yet, the answers raise just more questions: just who is this Jeffrey Alexander, and why is he writing a sequel, seven years later, to a movie that may not actually exist in the first place? The name doesn’t appear in the credits to the movie. And Google knows even less about Jeffrey Alexander than it does about this movie.
Wouldn’t you know it too, close as I can tell, War of the Worlds: Battlefront doesn’t exist either. The book never came out, nor does it appear in anyone’s catalogs or registries. Did it all fall through? Indeed, did this book exist in the first place, or is this trailer some kind of demo reel for a made-up book, its plot details contrived by Pyle and assigned to a fictional author as a demonstration of his services? That would certainly explain its plot lining up so well with a random 2005 minor independent film.
So much about this thing doesn’t make sense, and when you peel back one layer, there’s just another layer of weird. It’s not that far afield from what I’ve said from time to time about the merchandising for Captain Power: it feels very much like we’ve stumbled onto some little cache of artifacts from a parallel universe, where there’s this whole franchise around this. And in that way, it doesn’t actually matter all that much if the production is a little amateurish and the direction is misguided and the narrative is incomplete; that’s like meeting a real honest-to-goodness alien and being upset that it really does look like it’s made of bubble-wrap. No. It’s not very good. But we’ve got this strangely earnest window into a world that wasn’t quite. And that’s kinda neat.
Late-breaking Addendum: It suddenly occurred to me to search for this movie not under the title Netflix lists, but under what’s written on the box-art image, “An Adaptation of HG Wells’ Classic The War of the Worlds“, and much to my surprise, it turns out the movie does exist. It’s available (sometimes) from Overstock, Tower Video, and a handfull of other sellers. Which is a good thing, since Netflix looks like they broke their copy and otherwise I’d be stuck with just the handful of screenshots I took months ago when I first made up my mind to write about this. So y’know what? It’s cheap. Go ahead and get a copy. Watch it with friends. There are worse ways you can spend ten bucks.
For example, you could buy two copies of, I swear I am not making this up, Kevin Sorbo Presents War of The Worlds: A Biblical Adaptation.