And now for something… exactly the same.
It is June 28, 2005. In Afghanistan, eleven Navy SEALs and eight US Army Special Operations aviators are killed in Operation Red Wings when a reconnaissance team is compromised on the ground, and the helicopter sent to their aid is shot down. It is considered one of the worst tragedies in US Special Forces history. The final design for Manhattan’s Freedom Tower is unveiled.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman and The Even Stevens Movie are among today’s home video releases. In theaters this week are Batman Begins, March of the Penguins, and Romero’s Land of the Dead. Dead to Rights: Reckoning is released for the PlayStation Portable. Lesley Gore, best known for “It’s My Party”, releases Ever Since, her first album of new material in thirty years. Mariah Carey is number one on the charts with “We Belong Together”, followed by Gwen Steffani’s “Hollaback Girl”. Kelly Clarkson holds two spots in the top ten, with “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Since U Been Gone”, both holding steady since last week at numbers 6 and 9.
World events preempt the first half-hour of prime time, but ABC goes on to air the first episode of Empire, a miniseries about the rise of Caesar Augustus. Star Trek is off the air, of course, with the finale of Star Trek: Enterprise back in May. Ten days ago, Doctor Who wrapped up its first season with Christopher Eccleston’s final episode, “The Parting of the Ways”. We’re a little more than half-way through the run of Power Rangers SPD with Saturday’s episode, “Perspective”, their take on Rashomon. I mean, kinda. They half-ass it, literally just showing the same footage four times with dialogue that’s almost identical except for which character is being praised by the others. The episode serves primarily to tease the introduction of Sam, the time-traveling Omega Ranger, when the show returns from a short break. Morgan Spurlock is Jon’s guest on The Daily Show.
The Asylum. A film production company whose business model is based fifty percent on targeting people who only ever watch movies “ironically” and fifty percent on confusing old people into disappointing their grandchildren on movie night. “What do you mean? I thought you liked those Transmorphers. Fine, we’ll watch that other one you like, Snakes on a Train.” They churn out low-budget films, usually starring one B-list actor who you’ve actually heard of, packed with cheap sensationalism, but not quite as trashy as a proper grindhouse film, and you could sorta imagine that if Jaws had never happened and the Hollywood Blockbuster weren’t the dominant form of “proper” movie, these would be considered pretty much business-as-usual. They’re not on par with “real” movies, but they’re basically competent, at least half of the time.
Though a lot of their movies stand on their own, Sharknado being the most infamous, their bread-and-butter is what they term “Mockbusters”. These are films with a similar title and vaguely similar concept to a major studio film, released within a few days of their counterpart. They claim, grandparents aside, that they’re not trying to confuse anyone, but are honest about their intention to piggyback on the marketing hype of high-budget films. If the public’s already in the mood for a movie about the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse, they say, why not put out three or four of them? Given the glut of zombie movies a few years ago, or Warner’s shameless and misguided attempts to imitate the Marvel Cinematic Universe with DC, or the DreamWorks/Pixar wars, or, heck, the cluster of airport disaster films in the late ’70s, it’s hard to fault them for anything more than being especially shameless about it. There were two major studio films about Hercules in 2014, why should The Asylum get worse flack for making a third?
Heck, The Asylum is only really responsible for a third of the War of the Worlds adaptations that came out in 2005.
The thing is, of course, that they’re just so shameless about it. The DaVinci Treasure. AVH: Alien vs. Hunter. Death Raceers. The Day the Earth Stopped. American Warship. Atlantic Rim. The Terminators. Battle of Los Angeles. I’m not making any of these up.
But before Transmorphers and Paranormal Entity, before Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies and Android Cop, long before Mecha-Shark vs Mega-Shark and Sharknado, before 2012: Doomsday, 2012: Supernova and 2012: Ice Age, even before the Sherlock Holmes movie where he battles a giant robot Tyrannosaurus (Seriously, this exists), there was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
HG Wells’ War of the Worlds was The Asylum’s first Mockbuster, and its success — Blockbuster ordered a hundred thousand copies — is a big part of the reason that the company took the path it did. But while the next decade would see The Asylum progressively going further and further over-the-top, becoming more self-aware, and reveling in their own ridiculousness, here in 2005, they were still looking to be an ordinary, respectable, low-budget movie maker. You’re not going to see any giant sharks, zombies, or robot dinosaurs in this movie. The most outlandish thing you’re going to see is giant alien war machines with death rays, and, I mean, it’s War of the Worlds. You pretty much have to.
And that is… Kind of a problem with this movie. I find myself in the weird position of saying that this movie would be better if it were worse. Because David Michael Latt’s movie is… Fine. It’s okay. It is an intensely okay adaptation of the novel, adapted, as almost every other one is, to the present day. It’s moderately faithful to the plot of the novel. Thematically, it’s quite different, but it’s different in that it is strongly focused on the impact of the invasion to humanity rather than getting bogged down in the technical details of the aliens. The aliens themselves are somewhat liminal figures: most of their appearances in the movie serve to mark the end of a sequence, the point where everyone stops doing what they were doing and runs away to the next scene. Allegedly, the movie’s themes were heavily inspired by Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist, a movie set in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during the Nazi invasion of Poland. So this is clearly a movie that wants to be heavy and serious and say things about the human condition.
And then you get shots like this:
Also, it has Jake Busey in it. “Take my somber movie about the horrors of war seriously: it’s got Jake Busey in it,” said no one ever, except David Michael Latt.
That’s really the big stylistic failing of the movie. There’s very little specifically wrong with it: it’s a weak movie with second-string talent behind it, but it’s not an outright failure on a technical or narrative level. No, the problem this movie has is that if you put it next to almost any other movie ever made, and asked me to argue why you should watch War of the Worlds instead of the other one, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. Put it next to a good movie, and the good movie is better. Put it next to a bad movie, and the bad movie might at least be an interesting sort of failure. Put it next to the great thrust of movies that are somewhere in the middle, and, well, whichever, I guess.
The invaders are never specifically identified as being from Mars. In fact, I don’t think anyone ever comes out and calls them aliens. Not, as in some of our past examples, that they play coy about it and try to convince us that no one believes it’s aliens; more like the fact that the invaders are extraterrestrial is just so obvious that no one needs to point it out. One person does refer to the invaders as “terrorists”, but it’s not meant as a denial of the truth, but as a demonstration of how completely the lines of information have broken down, that no one’s been able to disseminate details about the attacks. The opening credits do show a Martian landscape, though, just in case we were unsure. It’s overlaid with “computer-vision” effects, as if to suggest we’re seeing the point of view of a Mars rover — Spirit and Opportunity were still big in the public consciousness a year into their extended missions. We return to Earth to meet our hero, played by once-promising actor, guy who was the second choice to play Marty in Back to the Future right behind the other guy who didn’t play Mary in Back to the Future, and person I keep confusing with the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island, C. Thomas Howell. He’s playing an astronomer named, in keeping with federal guidelines on protagonist naming in Wells adaptations, George Herbert.
He flirts heavily with his wife, Felicity, as they prepare for a trip to Washington to mark their anniversary. The scene doesn’t come off as especially salacious on paper, but she’s just gotten out of the shower and her breasts are exposed for so much of the scene that there is really no excusing this as anything other than really shameless titillation, and there was absolutely no warning that this was going to happen in this movie, and it’s the only nudity in the thing. After a little backstory and foreshadowing — their son has a cold — he heads downstairs. They don’t say it directly, but I gather Mars is in opposition, because his son, Alex (played by Howell’s real-life son), is trying to find it in the backyard telescope before they leave. George doubts it will be visible in full sunlight, but his son thinks he sees it. What he’s actually seeing is a CGI meteor, which impresses George enough that his wife is worried.
Her worries are borne out when the phone rings. It’s the observatory, where George’s boss wants him to come in and look at this wicked cool meteor shower. They never actually say where the Herberts live. The contextual clues seem like they indicate somewhere in the middle of Virginia: the only other place mentioned by name is Hopewell, which is a city in Virginia (Though also the name of unincorporated towns in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland). But Felicity mentions it being a five-hour drive to DC, which would put them much farther away. And her car has Delaware plates. They also mention highways numbered 85 and 40, which might suggest he’s somewhere in the vicinity of Chapel Hill, Raleigh, or Durham, North Carolina, and that’s reasonable since Duke and UNC both have associated observatories.
But personally, I think the most interesting place he could be that’s five hours’ drive from DC, would have to be Green Bank, West Virginia, where the Robert Byrd Radio Telescope is located, though it doesn’t quite fit, since they’ve got a cordless telephone and cell phones, which are, check this: illegal in Green Bank, on account of they don’t want anything interfering with the radio telescope. But maybe they live in the next town over or something. But keep Green Bank in mind if you ever find yourself wanting to write a radio telescope-related horror story.
Actually, never mind. The third time I watched it, I caught a line about halfway through where he mentions being from Greensboro. Which means he presumably works at a fictionalized version of the Cline Observatory at Guilford Technical Community College. So kudos to the filmmakers for actually getting the geography more-or-less right, even if they seem not to understand how walking works. He promises his family that he’ll catch up with them the next day. His wife takes it badly, which is entirely fair, because it’s their anniversary and he’s doing the cliche fictional man-who-always-puts-work-ahead-of-family thing. It comes from nowhere and goes nowhere and has nothing to do with his character development. There’s no plot arc where he has to learn to put his family first or anything: this whole development exists purely to give George the specific motivation of reuniting with his family later.
There wasn’t even a hint of tension in the family unit so far, so it feels very out-of-nowhere when Alex asks if this means his parents are going to divorce. To reassure him, George puts Alex in charge of the diamond ring he plans to give Felicity on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he proposes renewing their vows.
Time goes just a little wonky, as it’s night in the next scene. Possibly it was late afternoon when they left. That would track with the idea that George not arriving in Washington until the next morning was a reasonable thing to suggest, but Felicity imposes an urgency on their departure that seems like she’s got plans to actually do something when they get there. That makes it unlikely that their plan was to roll into DC in the middle of the night.
Another meteor streaks across the sky and George’s car suddenly dies in the middle of nowhere. Or not. Looked like a lonely country road, but when he gets out and walks to the impact site, it’s filled with people, confused and curious. George himself is confused as hell that the object didn’t make a bigger crater. He makes a little stab at that ’50s sci-fi movie thing where declaring himself a scientist automatically puts him in charge, but he doesn’t really have the confidence to impress anyone since his scientific background doesn’t answer any of the relevant questions about what the object is, where it came from, or why no one’s cell phone works.
What he can do is to help a woman whose boyfriend fell into the pit. Actually no, help is too strong a word. Try to help. One of the things this movie does well is its use of themes and symbolism: for most of the film, even before the invaders get involved, George fails at basically everything he tries to do. Just as the combined might of man will prove unable to turn back the aliens, whether it’s driving to work, taking his family on vacation, persuading his wife to sleep with him while packing, or helping a guy out of a crater, George Herbert’s best efforts always come up short. They actually could have turned this into a pretty powerful theme with just a little more work, though in a movie like this, it might push the whole thing into the territory of glurge. This low-budget alien invasion movie needs complex symbolism like a hole in the head.
Speaking of holes, the first thing the aliens do upon opening up their meteor is to impale the boyfriend with a long-ass tentacle and whip him away. The alien walker rises up out of the crater, standing on its six legs, and —
Wait, come again? Look, obviously, everyone’s going to want to put their own spin on things, come up with a new and clever twist, show something new in the design of the alien war machines. Warwick Goble’s flying saucers on stilts. Henrique Alvim Corréa’s big-eyed water towers. Goliath‘s anime-influenced mechs with dough-boy helmets. Albert Nozaki’s cobra-headed manta rays. The History Channel’s Herons. But the thing everyone agrees on is the number of legs the things are supposed to have. Three. Not two. Not four. Six is right out. The main body of the war machine looks decidedly crab-like in its proportions. Perched atop the main body is a large, swiveling “head” section that functions like a tank turret.
The energy weapon in the head fires a green blast which skeletonizes anyone unfortunate enough to be hit by it. The visual effect is surprisingly similar to the one in the Pendragon version, and is similarly cheap, but in a marked improvement, the whole thing happens quickly: green flash, skeleton, pile of debris. None of that “Ninety seconds of gurning ending with a flaming skeleton still dancing under its own power” nonsense. The energy weapon seems to play second fiddle to the legs, though, which bag at least as many kills by simply stepping on people as they flee, running them through. The alien ship can also extend a long CGI claw-arm, able to pretend to snatch people up. The scene is dark and a little hard to follow thanks to fast cutting and cheap CGI. It just kind of peters out, with George cresting a hill and the dramatic music fading out to let us know that he’s safe for the moment.
It’s still night when he arrives home on foot. This movie seems not to have a very realistic sense of how fast a person can walk. The power comes back on briefly for no clear reason, and he manages to call his wife. He barely has time to warn her to stay in Washington and meet him at the Lincoln Memorial, rather than trying to come home before the power goes out again. His assumption that she’d somehow be safer in the capital city of a major nation is bizarre, as is the way he won’t even let her speak long enough to say whether or not she’s in immediate danger.
He quickly fills a knapsack with supplies, including a photograph of his wife and son because he’ll need it to emote over later. Outside, he finds one of his neighbors packing his car. This is where the movie either gets very clever or very stupid, and I’m not sure which. The neighbor is a terrible actor, wooden and disengaged. He’s hurriedly packing, but doesn’t intend to leave. He hasn’t even checked if his car works. He gives no sign of anxiety or fear, or really much of anything. He rattles off a list of things that don’t work: the phone, the TV, the microwave, as though it’s somehow unusual that a power outage would affect all the appliances.
What I’m not sure about is whether or not he’s supposed to seem disengaged. See, this is basically the movie’s big “thing”, if it’s deliberate. It’s very rare in this movie for anyone to actually panic, except when the aliens are physically (well, computer-generatedly) on-screen. Most people most of the time are just sort of… There. Milling about, just kind of going about their business. No one’s screaming about the existential horror or questioning their place in the universe, or even hunkering down and fortifying a mall. They’re just… There.
This could well be just because they’re all thin and underwritten and this is a cheap movie without a huge amount of attention put into the minor characters. But I kind of get the idea that it might be on purpose. In 2005, the current set of refugee crises in the middle east were still years off, but the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were already years old and large in US public consciousness. There was a heightened awareness of the human impact of war in the modern world due to the 24-hour news cycle. And one of the things I think was a revelation to people watching these wars at home was how the experience of living in a war zone as a non-combatant was from what we saw in books and movies. Because the tendency in fiction, of course, is to focus on something that’s traditionally “interesting”: warfighters, or spies, or smugglers, or members of an underground resistance network. But right around the time this movie was being made, American audiences were being increasingly exposed to the reality that most people are busy just being people. There’s a war on, but we’ve still got to put food on the table, get the kids to school, keep the lights and heat on.
More than that, even. The human fight-or-flight reflex just isn’t made to run long-term. Humans can’t stay in crisis-mode indefinitely. The running, screaming, panicked rout, it doesn’t last long because it can’t last long. This is not to say that people are unaffected by prolonged disasters, but rather that the trauma isn’t expressed in a big, visible fashion. Instead, what you see a lot of is people going onto a sort of auto-pilot. Present, but not really engaged. They might be scared, or confused, or desperate, but above everything else, they’re tired. And that changes the way you process things.
Or maybe it’s just because hardly anyone in this movie has ever acted in anything else. It’s hard to tell.
The next morning, George is turned away by the National Guard with the rest of a crowd of people trying to cross a fallen bridge. Well, by “trying”, more like, “casually walking toward it, then half-heartedly shoving the National Guardsmen.” A glazed extra who looks a little bit like a much older Amy Acker tells him that martial law’s been declared, and that she’s planning to walk to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Tennessee. Their conversation ends abruptly when everyone’s cell phone starts working for a second. George’s wife calls, but all he manages to make out through the garbling is that she’ll meet him on the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. The phones all die again and another meteor strikes the far side of the bridge. You might be thinking that the coming and going of cell signals will prove to be an important plot point in the movie, with the sudden re-establishment of communications being a harbinger or something, or maybe George at a critical moment being able to avert disaster thanks to realizing that he can predict when the phones will work. Nope. Doesn’t come up again. Phones remain out for the rest of the film.
George runs from a walker for a bit, finally falling to the ground beneath it, where he misses being impaled by about six inches. The walker doesn’t seem particularly interested in murder today, though, instead striding off purposefully along the path of some high-tension wires. George, apparently exhausted, just sort of swoons on the ground.
We cut to night time, when George is now running again, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense. What, did he rest a while once the walker left, then got up, broke into a panic, and ran until night? He finds a dead body randomly in the woods, and it turns out to be that neighbor from two scenes ago, his chest burned open. What’s he doing here? What are the odds of George randomly finding the body of his neighbor in the woods where there’s no other signs of battle? Shut up, that’s why.
After failing to get it open, George sleeps by the side of a locked shed which, again, seems to just be randomly out in the middle of nowhere. The next morning, he meets someone important enough to actually be a named character. Sergeant Kerry Williams, played by Andy Lauer. Lauer looked a bit familiar, and by the unlikeliest of coincidences, it turns out that he was a regular in that sitcom I randomly mentioned last week, Grand. I didn’t plan that or anything. Weird, huh?
He’s pretty bent out of shape, approaching George with his gun drawn threatening him if he makes any sudden moves. He claims to need a doctor when George introduces himself (kinda dishonestly) as one before clarifying that he’s a PhD. Working together, they manage to get into the shed. Once inside, Kerry backpedals on needing a doctor, saying that he’s just “messed up” from two days of continuous fighting. George is in a bad way too: he’s got a nasty hacking cough and shivers. Kerry agrees to accompany him as far as Hopewell, where George hopes to find his brother, a retired Army Ranger.
They pass glazed refugees, including a group of lost-looking soldiers whose faces have all been badly burned, eventually coming across a unit led by Lt. Samuelson, played by none other than Jake Busey. Kerry explains that he was heading for Fort Lee, which is a real place, and is really near Hopewell. Samuelson says that Fort Lee has been destroyed, and orders him to Fort Myer instead, though he’s openly dismissive of “Government bureaucratic bullshit”. Here, the geography gets interestingly weird. Fort Myer is also a real place — it merged with Henderson Hall right around the time this movie came out — but the location Samuelson gives for it would put it somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean just past the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The actual Fort Myer is in Arlington. Which contradicts Samuelson’s claim that the entire DC area had been destroyed. But it does match up with the fact that George re-encounters Samuelson near the end of his trek. He’s visibly intrigued by George’s science background, and you can see hints that the wheels in his head are already turning. When they ask about Washington, he claims that it was completely destroyed, but his tone of voice suggests that he’s hiding something. Or maybe it just suggests that he’s Jake Busey.
Samuelson reacts badly to the suggestion of finding George’s brother, calling them cowards and weaklings who would only slow “his army” down. There’s been enough false starts and unresolved threads so far that I’d forgive you if you missed the foreshadowing, but they do lay it on a bit thick here.
I’m going to take a little break here, on account of it looks like this essay is going to end up being around 8,000 words, and that’s kind of a lot. Also, I’m having a lot of trouble producing enough words to release an article every week, so getting two for the price of one has certain advantages. So until next week, I’ll leave you with this:
- H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is apparently available to stream via conTV