Aliens invade. Gallons of bleach get drunk. Three vague characters bicker over snacks. When we left our characters, they were fleeing their occupied city.
For more comic relief, Roger suggests that “they” might nuke the city to get rid of the aliens. Given the complete destruction of the federal government at this point, I’m not sure who “they” are. Anders dismisses the possibility as ridiculous.
So of course we jump-cut to the city exploding in a mushroom cloud as they drive away. Roger crows a happy little “told-you-so”, not at all upset about the fact that he’s probably just sucked up enough radiation to ensure an unpleasant lingering death. Fortunately, the EMP effect does not disable their car, and the shock wave we literally see pass through them doesn’t force them off the road or anything.
There’s some weird discussion over whether “they” are going to nuke all the cities. Anders thinks it unlikely — “One or two cities would be a good deterrent, if they do anymore than that then we’ll have to start from the beginning and be like cavemen.” This dialogue is seriously close to gibberish. They haven’t seen any military presence, and speculate that the military was wiped out first, and that’s a little bit of a strange conclusion since they literally just saw evidence of the military at work, and they’re still planning to go to Paradise City. Where the grass is green and — never mind. Marissa mentions planes flying overhead in her next vlog, and is hopeful that this means that the military is back. Or that the director realized that airplanes flying overhead were about to ruin his shot. Nothing ever comes of it.
The news clears both Paradise City and the previously-unmentioned Little Haven as “radiation-free zones”, but adds that the aliens seem to be building a base camp in the former. The news reporting is surprisingly timely and accurate given the collapse of society. This could be an interesting contrast from basically every other adaptation, where a big part of the tension and suspense comes from how quickly the lines of communication break down. You could, if you wanted, frame it as commentary on the way that, say, post-9/11, the constant drumming of the 24-hour-news-cycle has made global tragedy and catastrophe seem more pressing and omnipresent. But you’d have to have a lot more faith than I do that this movie is intentional.
A more pragmatic, Doylist way of looking at it is that they got to the end of principal photography and realized that the movie was meandering and borderline incoherent, so they filmed a bunch of second-unit “news” footage to connect the story together. And I’m honestly kinda fine with that in principle. It could be an interesting experiment to send some people out with cameras and some backstory, then have an editor try to piece what they got back together into a coherent movie. An interesting experiment. For an art film. Probably not the way you want to do a low-budget Sci-Fi horror movie.
They reunite with Sera and Eyebrows, whose car has broken down, and discover something that you hardly ever see included in War of the Worlds adaptations: the red weed. There’s a longish rambling discussion where Roger and Anders meander their way through muddy memories of old movies to get out the concept of terraforming and they speculate that the black smoke was actually seeding the land. This is based entirely on Eyebrows seeing a plant Sera doesn’t recognize — just one, not, like, a whole field or something — and it never comes up again.
We’re getting on toward the midpoint of the movie, so if Alien Dawn is going to turn out to have anything to say, it should really get on with it. Finding Paradise City under alien occupation, Roger resolves to slip in under cover of darkness to reconnoiter. This leads to a heartfelt scene where everyone looks sad about the fact that he’s probably going to die. Then Marissa and Anders go off together for this strange exchange:
Marissa: You know, you’re funny.
Marissa: I think if this hadn’t happened, you know you and me, wouldn’t have happened either, right? In the real world?
Anders: Oh, yeah, the normal world at the bar, when things were… I don’t know, maybe you’re different.
Marissa: You’re different too. Crazy… but different.
Anders: You may be right, this would not have happened. But, uh, now everything is different, everything is changing.
Ignoring the organically clumsy dialogue, I guess the gist here is that Anders and Marissa are a couple now? When did that happen? The only scene that even hinted at affection between them was when he comforted her back on day four (There are intertitles to let us know how much time is passing, though I could not actually the transition to day 8, which I think is now). She’d otherwise been way more affectionate with Roger. There seemed like there might have been something setting up a love triangle with Marissa, Anders and Roger, with Anders showing signs of jealousy when Roger hugged her, but they never pursued it.
The trip into Paradise City turns up nothing the audience didn’t already know. Tripods abound, people have been rounded up in fenced-in areas, and the streetlamps are all still working. Roger reports that the aliens are sucking the blood of their captives, though nothing we see at any point in the film reflects this: both times we see an alien feeding, they simply consume humans whole.
He declares the war over and humanity defeated in light of the complete lack of any remaining resistance. But Anders has a plan, which Marissa relates in her next vlog, where she explains that he’s teaching her to make bombs, which is “actually very interesting. And we kinda have a little arsenal going, which is cool.” She also has a good laugh at the fact that, “I guess you could say that I am a terrorist. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing always. I kinda like it.”
There we go. It took this movie an hour of its seventy-five minute run-time, but we finally got to the point. Such as it is. It’s not really a fully-formed idea. But nothing in this movie really is fully formed. This movie’s thesis statement is something like “Something something terrorism, something something resistance, something freedom.”
I mean, okay. There’s the gist of an idea here. Or rather, a concept; “idea” is too strong a word. The basic underlying idea that motivated The War of the Worlds in its original form was, after all, “Imagine what it would be like if someone did to us here in the heart of the British Empire what the British Empire keeps doing to various less-developed civilizations in the rest of the world.” That really isn’t an aspect of the story that gets a lot of play in the various adaptations. Other adaptations have certainly looked to our collective cultural angsts of their times, about the specter of World War II in 1938, or about the specter of nuclear war in 1953, but those are reactions to things we already fear happening to us. The original story was about not our fears but our guilt. Not “What if the thing we’re afraid of happens?” but “What if the terrible things we do were visited unto us?”
The Asylum’s version is the only one I can think of offhand to touch on it. That version tries to show us the experience of having your life ripped apart by faceless invaders who scatter your people and destroy your infrastructure. If that movie used the metaphor of alien invasion to presage the growing international refugee crises of recent years, Alien Dawn goes right for the jugular, though: not content with the idea of happy, middle-class white Americans being reduced to refugees, they go all in and suggest that it is not just a plausible, but morally correct response, faced with a sudden invasion by a vastly more powerful force from a different land who rain down anonymous death from the sky, to turn to terrorism.
Which is a powerful and provocative message, and might be the sort of thing to get a conversation started about the causes of terrorism and how foreign policy creates the tensions that lead to brutality. It says very directly, “If someone did to Us what we did to Iraq, we might reasonably respond exactly the same way that the insurrectionists and terror groups do.” But of course it all falls flat, because this movie isn’t very good. What it really ends up showing is the extent to which American culture in the ’10s has let the word “terrorist” devolve into an utterly generic catch-all term for — heck, I’m not even sure. Marissa calls herself a terrorist, but the news also calls the aliens terrorists. The word seems to mean two things which in the context of Alien Dawn are very different, but which are linked together by the specific circumstances of military intervention by the United States in the twenty-first century: applied to Marissa, it means non nation-state actors engaged in local-scale guerrilla warfare tactics. Applied to the aliens, it means, pretty much, “anyone who attacks the United States on its own soil.”
The US is unusual among nations in that for almost the entirety of its history, “war” has always been a thing it engaged in by going somewhere else. War is sending your husbands and sons (and eventually daughters) off to a foreign land to kill people (For the past fifty years or so, almost exclusively people who weren’t white). Exclude wars fought along the nigh-unpopulated frontiers and in lands not yet formally part of the US, and you’ve got to go clean back to 1812 to find a war against a foreign adversary that a significant proportion of the US population could reasonably see as affecting their day-to-day lives in a direct dudes-with-guns-passing-through sort of way.
The alien invasion in this movie is a war. It’s not “terrorism” by any reasonable definition: it’s a full-scale invasion by an organized military force acting on behalf of an organized foreign power (Okay, fair point, this is all speculation since the political organization of the aliens is outside the scope of almost every adaptation). They behave like an invading army, even, attacking military targets and largely ignoring civilian ones. But it feels like a terrorist act because in 2012, your average American has no interpretive frame for the idea of a war where the bad guys actually land on the mainland and march through our cities and towns. That’s not what war looks like over here.
Alien Dawn sort of stumbled onto this actually very complex idea, but I don’t think they really appreciate its significance. I think they’re just reveling in being subversive. After all, they named their action hero after a couple of serial killers, and now he’s teaching the female lead to be a terrorist. Ooh, how naughty. Way back when we started down this path, I said that how the artilleryman scene is handled plays a big role in whether or not an adaptation of War of the Worlds really works. This is the adaptation that goes all-in and says, “The artilleryman was right.” Which means that we are in for a rough ride, folks.
What undermines the whole thing is that the transition of these characters from survivors to insurrectionists is just so… Unearned. The back half of this movie is basically about our characters, Marissa in particular, turning into Big Damn Hero Badasses. But not only is this transformation inconsistent, it’s not really even justified. There are rules for this sort of thing. Why are they deciding to fight back? The only answer we ever get is “Because this is our planet and we aren’t going to hide and be scared.” But… That’s not really a motivation. To bring about this kind of character change, we need a catalyst. We want to see something push our heroes almost to the breaking point, tear them down so they can be reforged in a stronger form.
But what happens in this movie to actually push our characters into fighting back? What have they actually lost? What have they actually suffered? The destruction in this movie is all abstract. We keep hearing about this invasion from the news. We never see a named character die to the aliens. The only named character to die at all is Joni, and she dies from Anders breaking her neck on account of she shotgunned a jug of Clorox.
There’s no impact when the characters decide to start fighting back because there’s nothing to contrast it with. By the point that the gang decides to turn terrorist, Anders, Roger and Marissa have faced all the menace of… Having to spend a week in a garage. They don’t even have any close calls with the aliens. There’s no indication that any of the major characters have lost anyone they care about — they even make a point about Marissa having just met Joni. Marissa even got a creepy boyfriend out of the deal. This is not a story about people pushed to the edge until they finally decide to fight back: it’s a story about people who are moderately inconvenienced by a threat that is more abstract than real, have a shockingly easy time of it, and then decide to start blowin’ shit up because it’s cool. This is the origin story of a right-wing militia group, not of an underground resistance cell.
- Alien Dawn is gettable from amazon.