war of the worlds
BBC/Mammoth Screen

The War of the Worlds review: another poor adaptation of the HG Wells classic

No one would have believed, in the last year of the 2010’s, that human affairs would be the main focus in The War of the Worlds, a timeless work by H.G. Wells. And yet across the gulf of TV commissioning, minds immeasurable off the mark regarded the Sunday night TV slot with envious eyes. And slowly, but surely, they drew their plans against us.

The War of the Worlds is a book which despite having the gripping premise of Martians invading Earth seems to confound most of the visionaries who attempt to adapt it. Spielberg managed two-thirds of a great film in 2005. Unfortunately, the final act failed to resolve the character arcs and gave audiences an unsatisfying conclusion. The 1953 adaptation has aged poorly and lacks the iconic tripods. Even Orson Welles had arguably too more fun scaring gullible Americans in the 30s, leaving Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical version to claim the crown as the strongest adaptation to date. Therefore, when the BBC announced they were adapting it, and doing so at a time in keeping with the book, there was cause to hope. The tripods looked good and the runtime seemed perfect. Then the show begins, and all the goodwill it had evaporated within the opening minutes. It’s difficult to imagine how this adaptation could have gone worse. It’s an atrocious piece of television which goes nowhere, adds nothing and will inspire no one.

It’s difficult to imagine how this adaptation could have gone worse

To begin with, we have our main characters George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), the former of whom is married to another woman and the latter is pregnant with his child. Neither of them are likeable characters even before the invasion begins, and the invasion itself doesn’t make them any more endearing. They make one face throughout the entire runtime, that being of forced despair as they leave various people to die and describe their love to one another. The human story therefore isn’t interesting, and neither is the invasion itself. It has no sense of scale, geography, tension or stakes. We have glimpses of the iconic moments from the book but without the context or weight needed to make them effective. The heat ray is unleashed from a spinning sphere, which looks sillier than threatening. The battles against the Martians are barely shown. The destruction has no scope to it. The tripods, while they look menacing at first, become ineffective and unthreatening the longer
they’re on screen.

There are a couple of good moments in the show, the early appearances of the tripods, but they fade into the background as the forced domestic drama overtakes them. The first two episodes inadequately convey the horror of the Martian invasion, but the final episode manages to take things down a notch further. In the show’s worst scene, trapped and hiding from the Martians, our heroes pontificate about how the Martians resemble British imperialism. The show literally spells out the metaphor of the book. It fails to show, or even convincingly tell H.G. Wells’ story and then it tries to tell its own alongside it with another misguided effort, future Earth.

In the show’s worst scene, trapped and hiding from the Martians, our heroes pontificate about how the Martians resemble British imperialism. The show literally spells out the metaphor of the book

This version of  The War of the Worlds sets around a third of its runtime after the invasion when the Martians have seemingly lost, but blighted the Earth. This leads to many scenes of people looking sad in a red-filter landscape and talking about nothing that advances the story. There’s no tension or progression in any of these scenes, and barely any of them link to the actual invasion narrative itself.Maybe this could have been the show, a story about humanity regaining itself after a Martian invasion, but as it stands it just grinds the series’ pacing to a halt and destroys any hope of tension or intrigue the actual war may have held.

2019’s The War of the Worlds feels like it was assembled from the leftovers on the cutting room floor. It is filled with unnecessary dialogue, first takes and poor writing which makes you feel like half the show is missing, the half featuring the actual war of the worlds.

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