Deep Ice: This is madness (C. Thomas Howell’s War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave)

wow200It is March 18, 2008. Three mortar shells detonate near the US Embassy in Yemen, killing two. Presidential Candidate Obama delivers his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, addressing race relations in America in response to recent “controversies” surrounding his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In other news this week, David Paterson becomes governor of New York following the resignation of Eliot Spitzer over a prostitution scandal. Paterson is New York’s first African-American governor and the nation’s first legally blind governor. The world economy continues to fall apart in the wake of the housing bubble collapse. The stock market takes a big hit in the wake of an emergency bailout of Bear Stearns, though the decline is cushioned a bit by their proposed sale to JP Morgan Chase. The Fed plans to dramatically cut its rates this week. The dollar is down, oil and gold are up. Pakistan’s parliament elects its first female speaker, Fahmida Mirza. Western China suffers a 7.2 earthquake. My parents have their thirty-seventh anniversary.

The top spot on the Billboard hot 100 this week goes to Usher with “Love in this Club”, which shot fifty spots up the charts from last week. Flo Rida, Chris Brown, Rihanna and Sara Bareilles round out the top five.

This week’s Power Rangers Jungle Fury is “Dance the Night Away”, because it’s four words and for some reason the showrunner since 2005 has had this thing where he makes all the episode titles have the same number of words as years he’s been in charge. The History Channel removes two words from its name, and the other from its content. Over the weekend, ABC Family aired The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing the Dream, the second of three highly improbable sequels-sorta-but-more-like-remakes to the 1992 theatrical romcom. ABC proper debuts Miss Guided, a midseason replacement about a high school guidance councilor which received vaguely favorable reviews but not a huge amount of viewership. It’ll be gone for good in a month. FOX airs the third and final episode of their new comedy-drama, The Return of Jezebel James before having the remaining episodes sent upstate to a farm where they can run and play all day. Carole King guests on The Colbert Report. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart comments on future-president Obama’s speech, saying, “At 11 o’clock AM on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.” Jeffery Sachs is his guest.

BBC Four gets its highest-ever ratings when it airs The Curse of Steptoe, a drama based on the making of the iconic comedy series Steptoe and Son (Better known on this side of the pond as the inspiration for Sanford and Son). Series 4 of Doctor Who will premiere in two weeks with “Partners in Crime”.

Enchanted, I Am Legend, The Seeker, Love in the Time of Cholera and Atonement are released on home video.

Also this.

Only the finest Powerpoint technology.

Only the finest Powerpoint technology went into these titles.

You guys. Srsly, you guys. Oh em gee. You know how I said that The Asylum’s War of the Worlds would have been better had it been worse? Turns out I was mistaken. Or not. I’m not sure. In 2008, The Asylum decided to let C. Thomas Howell direct and star in a sequel to their 2005 mockbuster.

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was The Asylum’s first mockbuster. It was early in the process of them finding their characteristic style and lacks the over-the-top revelry in audacity that would come to define them. Rather, it’s a movie that wants — desperately at times — to be taken seriously. It’s incredibly, painfully, nonsensically earnest. They made several more non-mockbuster films in the following time, but here is a brief recap of the mockbusters they made in the intervening three years:

So it’s probably fair to say they’d figured out their wheelhouse by now. War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave is basically nothing like its predecessor. Where the first film was, inexplicably, a somber meditation on the grim desperation and loneliness of war, War of the Worlds 2 seems to be the result of someone looking in the wastepaper basket the morning after an orgy between left-over bits of Stargate SG-1, Independence Day, Battlefield Earth and a little bit of The Matrix.

It’s hard for me to know how to approach this movie. You remember how years ago I tried to review Zardoz, and I got about as far as Sean Connery in a diaper and was just like, “Nope”, because the whole movie is such a mess that the basic act of writing it all down in a linear medium like prose is going to make it sound way more coherent than it actually is?

War of the Worlds 2 is no Zardoz, but what it is is all over the place. The first movie might have made a serious miscalculation in what they decided the story should be about, but at least they made one. This movie has four or five movies’ worth of concept all just sort of tossed in with very little sense of rhyme or reason. The individual parts — well, they aren’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but most of them are at least coherent. But they add up to an incoherent mess, rather than a story with such mundane things as a beginning, middle and end.

A little montage of the first movie gives us the very few details that are relevant to the sequel: Earth got invaded, then the invaders died. C. Thomas Howell’s voice-over makes an interesting shift to the tone of the novel’s ending, though:

But as we searched the internet and waited in line for our soy lattes, they needed only one thing to survive: our blood.
But as they harvested, there was something they hadn’t planned on: we fought back. All the world’s armies, all the Earth’s inhabitants down to the smallest microbe joined together to drive them back where they’d come from.

You’d normally expect that the odd non-sequitur jab at latte-drinkers was something in the vein of the artilleryman character, berating wimpy liberals who couldn’t fight back like real manly men, but instead, the message he gives is one of unity. Unlike the traditional presentation, where man and “all his defenses” failed, only to be saved by bacteria, they instead present the alien defeat as a united effort, the Earth as a whole coming together to drive off the invaders. That’s quite a nice, otherworldly idea, sorta Final Fantasy-ish… And they do balls-all with it.

TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise! More than meets the eye! TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise!

TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise! More than meets the eye! TransformersTransmorphers! Robots in disguise!

The opening montage shows the hexapod walkers from the first film, but those won’t be reappearing. The new design demonstrates that the visual effects guys actually read the book this time, as they’re tripods now. The humans will refer to them as such (Though they more often use the term “squid-walker”) even before the second wave arrives, so chalk it up to a retcon. The CGI is better, in a strictly “Three years of industry developments in what commodity 3d rendering technology can do” sort of way, but it’s offset by a lot of more adventurous FX shots, such as the tripods straddling buildings. Also, they can fly. As the name implies, the squid-walkers have also become more cephalopod in design rather than insectoid. In flight, they seem to have been inspired by the sentinels from The Matrix. We don’t see the aliens themselves at all, and the humans never refer to them as being a distinct thing from the tripods: the squid-walkers themselves are described as being alive, but the dialogue goes back and forth on whether the walkers are themselves the intelligent beings running the invasion, or if it’s just that the alien technology is organic in nature. It seems like maybe the aliens aren’t discreet individual organisms but some kind of amorphous colony-creature made up of “brain” nodes and purpose-grown techno-organic machines, but it’s inconsistent.

The toxic green mist doesn’t appear in this movie. Maybe it just wasn’t relevant to the parts of the invasion we see, but the increased emphasis on aliens “harvesting” humans would likely preclude it. The beam weapon is mostly similar to what appeared in the first movie, but rather than skeletonizing its victims, it’s revealed to be a kind of teleportation ray, vacuuming up humans into a storage compartment in the walker. This… Comes across a lot faster than I think they meant to. I mean, I got it right away, but I think it’s supposed to be a surprise when we see people alive later after being shot.

The movie wastes no time revealing the new tripod. The very first post-montage scene finds one attacking a town that is run down, but more in a “2008 economic crisis” sort of way than a “Two years after civilization was routed by an interplanetary war” sort of way. Everyone seems to be living on the street in tents and shanties rather than in the abundant unoccupied buildings, because reasons.

Everyone’s very upset when the squid-walker appears and zaps first a child, then who I assume is the kid’s mom, and there is a general panicked flee, but no one actually seems surprised that the aliens have returned. In a coherent movie, would be the first part of a subtle build-up to a big twist later. But this movie is such an incoherent mess that you’ll either figure it out way too early or not at all, and in either case, it doesn’t really make much sense.

It’s here that we meet two minor characters that the movie thinks are major characters. Their names are Shackleford and Sissy, and they have no backstory and we will only see them a couple of times. I think Sissy might be Shackleford’s daughter, but I don’t think they ever actually say so. There’s something indeterminately “off” about Sissy, which is one of the few things in this film which actually will become clear later. She’s fearful; he’s resigned. They must have some previous arrangement set up because without any need to exposit about what they’re doing, he takes out a syringe, draws some of her blood, and injects himself with it. Against her protests, he runs off to get himself teleport-zapped.

Also, Shackleford kinda looks like the result of an alien breeding project involving Mark Ruffalo and Cliff DeYoung

Also, Shackleford kinda looks like the result of an alien breeding project involving Mark Ruffalo and Cliff DeYoung

We’re doing okay so far, aren’t we? I mean, it sounds like we’re doing okay. This scene builds up a little sense of mystery, a little suspense. We’ve got the impression that society is still in the early stages of recovery after the previous invasion. We’ve established that the aliens are back. We don’t know the deal with Shackleford and Sissy yet, but if you come in knowing at least the gist of The War of the Worlds, you can reasonably guess that they’re trying to exploit the alien weakness to microorganisms. So maybe this movie is going to be about Shackleford trying to find a virus that will defeat the aliens once and for all. Or maybe Shackleford will be the MacGuffin, and our actual hero will have to mount a daring rescue to retrieve him from the aliens.

Except that none of that happens. This scene isn’t indicative of the state of the Earth. Shackleford only appears one more time. What we learn about Sissy doesn’t add up. Heck, Shackleford doesn’t even accomplish the thing he just set out to do — there’s no indication he actually does get himself captured here.

Our only two returning characters from the previous movie are George Herbert and his son, Alex, still played by C. Thomas Howell and his son Dashiell. The elder Howell is the only actor in this movie who can do anything that even vaguely resembles “acting”. His son is spared from being utterly awful only by the fact that the two have a very natural rapport with each other.

George and Alex are living in a cabin in the woods… Somewhere. The last movie made a concerted effort to namecheck vaguely realistic geography the filmmakers almost certainly had only read about in books. This one is completely groundless, geographically. It’s settings are all “somewhere rural”, “somewhere urban” or occasionally, “somewhere Martian.” Two years after the invasion, the world is in a state of what wikipedia charmingly calls, “peaceful anarchy”. The details of this new world are pretty sketchy. It doesn’t seem like infrastructure or government have been reestablished; everyone’s pretty much on their own. There’s some sort of remnant of an organized military, but it’s not clear what actual authority they have. There’s no signs of any kind of organized government except for the fact that George carries “food coupons” which apparently have value.

I have no sense of why the world is the way it is, either. Remember, the war ended two years ago. Stopped dead. Certainly, given the scope of the devastation, you wouldn’t expect the rebuilding to be complete by now, but it doesn’t seem like it’s even started. It’s as though no one’s actually interested in putting civilization back together: they’d all rather just go live in the woods and scrounge for dented cans of ravioli (It’s George’s birthday, and Alex scrounged him one as a present. George appreciates it, but is upset that his son was off scrounging in the big scary world without escort).

But maybe it’s just because they’re in America. Maybe in this universe, the GOP won in ’08 and they decided to cut taxes by not having a country any more. We do see a shitty CGI “Recognizable landmarks of the world getting destroyed” montage later in the film and it seems like London and Paris have been completely rebuilt.

Conspicuously absent from this scene of domestic tranquility is George’s wife, Felicity. They never say what happened to her. She’s only mentioned once, and only in enough detail to imply that she died. Alex never mentions her at all.

Their scene of domestic tranquility is shattered when George’s bicycle-powered radio starts squealing out a strange distortion which apparently is supposed to be the same thing he heard on the radio right before his truck died in the previous movie. Only it’s not, and the explanation he gives later has nothing to do with it. But it convinces him that the aliens are back and he’s got to go warn the, uh, I don’t know, “authorities”, I guess. He locks Alex in the basement with a can of soda, half a bag of chips, the last double-A batteries for his Game Boy, and his watch, then sets off for… Somewhere.

Remember this skyline for a few paragraphs.

Remember this skyline for a few paragraphs.

“Somewhere” in this case is “Free Forces Base and Lab”, a fortified encampment in a city that was either built out of recovered scrap like piles of wrecked cars and sheet metal, or actually just was a junkyard before they look it over. To gain access, he shows a laminated, government-issued ID card, which, again, suggests that the infrastructure to make things like machine-printed, laminated government-issue ID cards still exists, but phones and public utilities and sleeves do not (it’s coming). I really do think maybe the idea is actually that civilization is way less “collapsed” than it seems, and it’s just that it’s Trump’s America and no one wants to put civilization back together.

I think she also played "Second Female Character" in the first movie

I think she also played “Second Female Character” in the first movie

He meets with Dave and Victoria to show them his findings. I won’t go as far as to say that Kim Little, who plays Victoria, is a terrible actress who obviously only got the part because she’s married to David Michael Latt. I can’t tell: she might actually be fine, except for the fact that she’s affecting this ridiculously fake southern accent that’s so thick that Lawrence Olivier couldn’t emote convincingly through it.

What follows is, not making this up, a solid ten minutes of the thickest expospeak bullshit since Star Trek got cancelled. The whole scene is a continuous clusterfuck of nonsense. Many individual lines of dialogue make sense — I kinda suspect they are simply cribbed directly from Wikipedia articles — but it’s rare for any two lines to be consistent with each other, or indeed have anything at all to do with each other. Highlights include a “diagramatic cipher that allowed us to steal from the Squid Walker technology”, and “the Schwartzchild effect,” as well as these bullet points:

  • The scientists are translating the alien language, but they “need a key”, because alien languages work just like substitution ciphers. Also substitution ciphers work such that if you don’t have the key, you can still figure out the gist of things.
  • George has detected a “shift in matter” four days ago which indicates that the aliens have created a wormhole in orbit. After trying out “wormhole”, “vortex”, and “Einstein-Rosen Bridge”, they will eventually settle on calling it a “time hole”.
  • The aliens are from Mars, by the way. I know we all assumed this, but the last movie never came out and said it. Weirdly, they explain that they never actually saw the aliens coming to Earth from Mars: they used their “time hole” to get here. Which means that the humans have absolutely no basis for knowing the aliens are from Mars.
  • Dave is keeping his former boss in the closet. She pumped herself full of diseases in order to create a “concoction” that they hope will magically turn into a super-virus that will kill the aliens. While this concept will come up again, its presence here is entirely irrelevant. Also, viruses do not work that way.
    • Is this a thing? I see a lot of zombie stories which also play the “We mixed a bunch of viruses together and they fused to form zombie juice” card.
  • In the past two years, they’ve built a fleet of fighter jets enhanced with alien technology, which mostly works except that they aren’t sure if they can survive leaving the mesosphere because they can’t get the shields working without the cipher key, and as we all know, the exosphere is a kind of energy barrier that you need shields to breach.
  • These scientists like to end sentences with, “Or so I thought.”

Also, this urban fortification has an adjacent desert. Are we still in Virginia?

They give him a tour of the inside of a Squid Walker, which is basically just torn rubber sheets, and looks kinda like the inside of the ship from the Doctor Who serial “The Claws of Axos”. The ship is controlled by a lump in the middle which Victoria describes as a “conduit to a vortex generator, or so I thought,” which is weird, because they only just learned about the whole vortex-generating thingy a minute ago. Turns out that it’s actually a, “UHF frequency modulator. Comparatively speaking.” Also, later it’ll be an alien brain that is connected to the central hive-mind of all aliens. It’s like this movie was written by throwing Wikipedia into a Cuisinart.

I'll be honest, I was expecting it to look more like genitalia.

I’ll be honest, I was expecting it to look more like genitalia.

So the transmission that George heard turns out to be the alien wifi password, and plugging it in lights the alien brain thing up. And also makes all the alien-enhanced jets lift off and hover around, to the surprise of the military commander, Major Kramer. Kramer allegedly met George shortly after the invasion and the two became friends. He looks like the kill-crazy soldier who is going to fuck everything up, especially since he’s dressed in a wife beater and a Class A Army uniform jacket with the sleeves ripped off. But he turns out to be a total mensch who does at least one useful thing.

Sorry, all wardrobe had left was "Mad Max Villain"

Sorry, all wardrobe had left was “Mad Max Villain”

Blessedly absent is the bit where no one wants to believe the aliens could possibly be back and George gets shunned until it is too late. Indeed, everyone seems to have pretty much expected the aliens would come back eventually, and find George completely convincing. George’s relationship with the others is inconsistent: he’s on friendly terms with Kramer and Dave, but hasn’t been to the base recently enough to know about any of their work, or to have met Victoria, and Kramer doesn’t know about George’s wife. Dave invites George to come live on the base (and Kramer does the same a few minutes later), mentioning that there’s a school there for Alex, and I can’t figure why he hasn’t done this already. It would make perfect sense if he’d been holed up at the remains of his old observatory: big telescopes aren’t portable, so you’d have him opting to stay isolated to do his work. You could have some character tension with George conflicted between staying at his telescope to watch for aliens and taking Alex to be with other children. But they’re living out in the woods and his telescope is a dinky little portable model even smaller than the one he had in his backyard last movie. The findings he presents suggest that he does have access to a network of telescopes, though. So maybe the cabin is near a large telescope array, but that’s the sort of thing you’d want to show, and maybe tell us about.

George rushes home to collect Alex while the others make preparations for war. George runs out of gas on the way and has to barter with some rednecks in a pointless scene that takes way too long. As a result, he arrives just in time to see Alex emerge from shelter and get zapped by a Squid Walker. Because of course he did. It’s not like the aliens who came here for absolutely no reason other than to abduct humans for juicing would stick to the major cities and population centers. Obviously they would show up and send a single walker out into the woods three hours from what passes for civilization to abduct a single child and pointedly ignore his dad who is a couple of yards away.

George does the Long Night of the Soul thing where he cries and yells at God and compares himself to Job while organ music plays in the background. But fortunately for George, the little audio montage that plays of him remembering conversations with his son accidentally includes one of the lines of exposition from the base scene, prompting George to realize that his son was not vaporized, but teleported up to the mothership, so he sets off for what looks like the same town from the first scene, to get himself zapped.

We’re roughly a third of the way through the movie at this point, and basically, it gets a lot less dense from here on out. Given all the ’80s media I consume, one thing I can safely say about this film is that, for its many flaws, it’s very modern in structure. Which is to say that unlike ’80s movies, which tended to spend more than half of their runtime on build-up and only have the aliens or pirates or Nazis show up for act 3, they basically load all the setup into the first third of the movie, and the next hour is going to be pretty consistently action and adventure. I mean, it’s not like they have a whole lot of time to waste on buildup given how many largely-unconnected plots they’ve got going on.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m going to take a little break here before continuing with the story next time. For all I complain about the movie being incoherent, I can look back now and see that basically every plot development which happens from here out has already been set up. And the weird thing that means is that what’s wrong with this movie (what’s most wrong with this movie, at least; bad acting and bad CG are the low-hanging fruit) isn’t a lack but rather an abundance. There’s just too much. The movie suffers badly from a lack of focus. What I said about the technobabble scene is really a microcosm for the movie as a whole: individual threads of plot are often coherent and make sense, but there’s just so many of them, and they’re all just tossed together with no sense of what the various components have to do with each other or whether they belong in the same movie.

The most egregious example is when Dave shows off the sick scientist in the closet. Why does he think George needs to see this? What does he reckon an astronomer will gain from seeing that they’re giving people the plague in the hopes of magically creating an alien-killing superbug? The Doylist answer is that the act 3 resolution will lean on the fact that George already knows that infecting people with a bunch of diseases is a plausible way to create a super-bug that will defeat the aliens. I mean, it isn’t — it’s just not, sorry, but at least I am convinced that the movie thinks it is. The Watsonian reason Dave thinks George “has to see” it is… Because shut up. The first half of the movie is full of thing after thing after thing that happens for no reason better than, “Because the second half of this movie will require it to have happened.” It’s not so much set-up as justification: it feels like the movie really begins thirty minutes in, and the first part is someone’s fanfic written after-the-fact to explain away all the deuses-ex-machina.

So there’s just one thing left this movie has to do to get all its ducks in a row, one more piece to position on the playing field. We’ve met all the major characters at this point save one. He’ll appear immediately after the break. If you’re familiar with the casting in Asylum films, you might know that most of their films, in addition to their regular staple of actors, include one “big name”. Not a big big name, at least a name there is a good chance you’ve heard of. Someone who was way better known 20 years ago than they are today, who probably took the job just for the trip to whatever sunny location they were filming in. Bruce Boxleitner. Lance Heinrikson. William Katt. Lou Diamond Phillips. Lorenzo Lamas. Greg Evigan. Judd Nelson. This film is no different, though there is perhaps a slightly lower chance of you recognizing the name. Our last major character is Pete, played by Christopher Reid.

Oh yes, of course, it's this guy.

Oh yes, of course, it’s this guy.

Don’t recognize him? Here, let me try this one:

I realize that if you did not recognize him before, you probably aren't the sort of person who'd recognize early '90s rap duo Kid 'n Play even in their classic 'dos, but at least I tried.

I realize that if you did not recognize him before, you probably aren’t the sort of person who’d recognize early ’90s rap duo Kid ‘n Play even in their classic ‘dos, but at least I tried.

This is going to be… Interesting.

  • War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave is available from Amazon.

One thought on “Deep Ice: This is madness (C. Thomas Howell’s War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave)

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for June 24th, 2016 | The Slacktiverse

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