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H.G Wells' The War of the Worlds: Mark's Take
25/06/2005 Source: Mark R. Leeper 

This is the first film to do the novel in the period in which it was intended, says Mark. The acting is stylized; the photography is stylized; the special effects are stylized. All this effectively evokes a period feel on a dime-store budget. This exceptionally faithful adaptation of the Wells novel, but is a film that will appeal to only a very narrow audience.

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Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

The new version of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS seems to be channeling Karel Zeman. Zeman was a Czech filmmaker who made several remarkable and heavily stylized movies. Frequently adapting classic works of science fiction or fantasy, he had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek style. His special effects were not lavish, but instead looked like they were done imaginatively on a tiny budget. If the films were not always highly-polished, they were done with panache, creativity, and frequently a whimsical feel. For THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE, Zeman combined live-action with what appeared to be animated Gustave Dore lithograph illustrations. They evoked the feel of the classic editions of Verne that had been illustrated by Dore. Zeman's other films include THE LOST AIRSHIP, ON THE COMET (both based on Jules Verne), and THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN.

Karel Zeman is no more, but, intentionally or not, the spirit of Zeman is very much alive in H. G. WELLS' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, directed and co-written by Timothy Hines. It is one of this year's three versions of that novel and may well end up being my favorite of the three. With what are occasionally somewhat playful comic-opera performances Hines gives us an extremely accurate and faithful adaptation of the H. G. Wells's novel. And he sets it around 1900, just as Wells intended. Nobody has ever done that on film before. To make sure that he does not omit any important plot points from the novel Hines's version is just a minute or so short of three hours.

To fans of only lavish fantasy filmmaking with completely convincing special effects, this film may be a disappointment. And the film has gotten little positive comment. Fans of the Wells novel, however, will not find a better adaptation to film. I will not outline the plot. The plot of the Wells novel is the plot of the film to several decimal places. The only plot point that I noticed that was lost was that the Martian red weed that dies off, foreshadowing the fate of the invasion. Because the film so closely follows the book, the pacing may be slower than modern audiences might expect. But patience has its rewards.

The film has no familiar actors. The cast is made up of mostly first-timers. Hines has them parody stuffy British stage melodramatics of turn-of-the-century Britain. Their acting style is less that of a 21st century film and more that of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. That is all Hines asks of them. That is quite possibly all Wells would have wanted. Wells wrote his novel to complain about British Imperialism in places like Tasmania and to vent his anger at the indifferent English populace. The Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style acting is sufficient to create the feel of empty people, and Wells would have approved most heartily. The one poor touch in the casting is that all the major actors appear to be at most in their early thirties. Somehow that is not the impression I get from the book.

As with the acting, Hines does not give us all that might be expected in the special effects. As would be true with a marionette show, it is easy to tell we are not looking at reality, but the effects are sufficient to do their part to carry the story. Frequently effects will be botched, and my guess is that it was done intentionally. When a building is burning, flames will be superimposed over the windows, but they will be just enough off-position to remind us that these are effects. The Martian war machines, this time envisioned with a sort of arthropod look, do not have much mobility and look flat and cartoonish.

Perhaps an irritating touch of the film is in its emulation of very early cinema. The visuals frequently jump and jerk as if an old film has been repaired many times and frames are missing. It is an interesting idea, but the effect quickly wears out its welcome. Fortunately we see a lot less of this touch in the second half of the film. The score by Jamie Hall, credited in the IMDB for only one previous film, has some moments, but for the most part is just adequate.

Personally I would have liked the first period adaptation of WAR OF THE WORLDS to have been done well and seriously with believable effects. That would probably have met with more audience approval. Perhaps such a film will eventually be made. This is a film that serves the novel and H. G. Wells's intentions well, without letting the visual effects or even the action steal the show. The film is just a kinetic illustration of the novel. But I am happy to settle for that. I rate this version a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. But I do not expect that there will be many viewers who will like the film as much as I do. I might suggest watching the film with the novel in hand and open. As far as I know this movie is available only on video.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2005 Mark R. Leeper

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