The World's End: review

Sitting down after watching the third chapter in the “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” (a.k.a., the Cornetto Trilogy, so named for the brand of ice cream that appears in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and now THE WORLD’S END), I would like to write a lengthy, detailed review noting intricate virtues of the triumphant final flavor (mint chocolate chip, for those keeping track). Unfortunately, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg neglected to craft a triumphant film, so I cannot write that review. Far from the crowning conclusion, the third serving of Cornetto melts slowly for 109 minutes, its initial lustre resolving into a gooey, sticky mess on the sidewalk. Yes, technically it’s still mint chocolate chip, but you wouldn’t want to eat it, except to prove your unswerving fealty to the Wright-Pegg tribe.

Don't you hate it when the local policeman turns out to be an alien robot?
Don't you hate it when the local policeman turns out to be an alien robot?

This time out, Pegg plays Gary King, a middle aged former big fish in a small pond, who laboriously explains the back story in a prologue sequence that turns out to be a monologue at some kind of group therapy session. Gary regrets never finishing the quest he and his friends attempted years ago, to pub-crawl their way through all twelve local establishments in their home town. With nothing else going on in his life, Gary cajoles and badgers his old mates into having a second go. What follows is a fitfully amusing but dramatically trite exploration of middle age, but wait – and you knew this was coming – there’s a twist: the small British town has been taken over by alien robots!
The sci-fi element is intended to put a jolt into the otherwise mundane story (god knows that watching Gary and company work their way through a dozen pubs is not enough to sustain a feature film), and to some extent it does enliven the proceedings. Unfortunately, the alien invasion is also intended to lend a new perspective to Gary’s predicament, forcing him and his friends to realize what’s truly important in life. Well, sort of.
You see, what’s really happening is something else – perhaps not fully intentional, but not entirely accidental, either. Gary, frankly, is a self-centered jerk; although he presents the pub-crawl as a chance for him and his friends to reunite, the exercise really serves only his needs, and everyone else is just along for the ride, because he would feel incomplete without his posse. In his context, the threat of alien invasion does not force a revaluation of Gary’s personal priorities; it serves to reinforce – or at least, eclipse – his personal failings. Along with his friends on screen, we in the audience are supposed to forget about what a louse Gary is, because how important is that when the world’s end is nigh?
Unfortunately for THE WORLD’S END, it is nearly impossible to overlook Gary’s shortcomings, because Pegg nails them so perfectly in his first few minutes of screen time. What he never manages to do – ever – is convey the charm that would coax his friends into following him like trained puppy dogs. Throughout Gary’s interaction with Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Andy (Nick Frost), we wonder why they ever put up with him, let alone agreed to get back together with him. (He convinces Andy to come along by lying about his mother’s supposed death; Andy is too stupid to see through the obvious deceit, which the film reveals later as if it were a surprise.)
We also find ourselves yearning eagerly for one of Gary’s “friends” to punch him in the nose; when it finally happens in the third act, it is about an hour too late. By this time, whatever flavor the film had has melted away. Gary’s insistence on completing his quest – even after the aliens have snatched two of his friends – is incredible and absurd, but never really funny, and he never has a change of heart or one of those personal growth moments that might make us think there had been a reason for making him the protagonist.
The-Worlds-End-2013-Movie-ImageInstead, THE WORLD’S END leads up to cornball conclusion in which the Voice of the “Network” (Bill Nighy) tries to coerce Gary into joining the aliens voluntarily. The aliens turn out to be less interested in violent take-over than a simple merger; they would rather win allies than replace them with Stepford Clones, but they are willing to use force if necessary, because otherwise it would not be so obvious that they were the bad guys – which is necessary in order to make Gary seem like a good guy. In response to the alien’s offer, Gary’s penchant for fucking up everything he touches is provided as a counter-point, as if it were a point of honor – proof of the superiority of the human race. We are supposed to cheer Gary’s individuality – his desire to be free and do what he wants to do* – but he provides such a miserable example of the human race, that it’s easy to see why the aliens thought we needed a little help up the evolutionary ladder. In fact, our final image of Gary sees him starting a bar fight – lethal judging by the weapons on display – over a drink of water, in the post-apocalyptic world that results from the aliens’ departure. Presumably, Wright and Pegg intend this message to be taken with a heavy dose of irony, but they offer no evidence for this onscreen.
In spite of everything that is wrong with THE WORLD’S END (the title is taken from the last pub the boys reach), Pegg and Wright are too talented to his their target completely. The supporting characters are nicely played, engendering whatever sympathy the film evokes. Pierce Brosnan shows up in a bit as a former professor, lending a touch of class that the rest of the proceedings lack: he almost sells you on the idea that the alien invasion is a good thing. The shift from character comedy to sci-fi spoof is handled in a nicely matter of fact way, and Wright is fine with handling the tonal shift. If nothing else, his films are a distinctive change from the usual cookie-cutter approach: AT THE WORLD’S END is not much better than THE WATCH, but at least is is disappointing in a more interesting way.
Wright’s handling of the fight scenes is mildly amusing in a dumb-movie kind of way. Our boys are surprisingly adept at defeating the supposedly intimidating aliens – at least until the the third act arrives and the script realizes it’s time to gin up a crisis, at which point our heroes start loosing or at least have a harder time winning.
THE WORLD’S END exudes the lazy, knock-off aura, examplified by by the appearance of a giant robot – that doesn’t actually do anything interesting – and by the title itself, which is justified in the final reel almost as an afterthought. The film may not, in a literal legal sense, but the equivalent of a “contractual obligation album,” but nine years after SHAUN OF THE DEAD, it certainly feels as if Wright and Pegg are simply delivering the film out of a sense of obligation to their fans, recycling the old motifs with little new inspiration. Once again we have the small English town with the sinister secret (HOT FUZZ), and once again we have Pegg as a man on a mission, which is interrupted by monsters (zombies instead of aliens in SHAUN OF THE DEAD).
The difference is Shaun, unlike Gary, wanted to win back his old girlfriend – a worthier goal than drinking twelve pints at twelve different pubs – and SHAUN OF THE DEAD truly felt like a Working Title romantic-comedy rammed headlong into a zombie apocalypse film, with all of the Working Title virtues intact and augmented by the bizarre context. THE WORLD’S END, on the other hand, has all the virtues of a pub-crawl – if any. Adding robot aliens into the mix does not create some brilliantly original genre hybrid, combining the best fo both. It just gives us a pub-crawl with alien robots.
worlds_end_0THE WORLD’S END (August 23, 2013, A Universal Pictures Release of a Working Title Films production). Directed by Edgar Wright. Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Rated R. 109 minutes. Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan.
2 out of 5 on the CFQ Review Scale: not recommended, but with some redeeming qualities.

  • Gary’s creedo is provided in voice via an audio clip from THE WILD ANGELS: “We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. … And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time…”

Dark Skies: Review

Dark_Skies_PosterDARK SKIES proves once again (as if any proof were necessary) that Blumhouse Productions has codified its horror template to the point that their films are the cinematic equivalent of blues music: the lyrics may change, but not the subject matter or tone; and regardless of the writers and performers, you will hear the same 12-bar chord progression, hitting the same beats, with approximately the same musical arrangements. In this case, the innovation lies in the switch from unseen supernatural forces to unseen alien invaders; otherwise, the song remains the same.
In case you did not know it, the nuclear family is disintegrating. Mom and Dad cannot support their family’s suburban lifestyle. They argue – maybe not about money, but they argue because of money – or, more precisely, the lack of it. In fact, they are so busy arguing that they do not realize the greater threat lurking in the shadows of their home. Their children try to tell them, but hey – they’re just kids, and what do they know anyway? So the parents don’t listen; they just focus on financial problems, not realizing that even if Mom sells the property she is trying to unload, or if Dad gets the new job for which he has applied, that’s not going to solve the real problem.
I am of course talking about DARK SKIES here, but with a few changes the above paragraph could apply equally well to SINISTER or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, both of which revolved around monsters attempting – successfully, as it turned out – to snatch children right out from under Mom and Dad’s nose.
Fortunately, the parents in DARK SKIES are not quite as absurdly oblivious as the clueless couple in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4. They actually figure out something is wrong and consult a self-styled expert (J.K.  Simmons, filling in for Vincent D’Onofrio, who performed similar service in SINISTER). Based on what they learn, they even try to do something about the problem, which generates a third act that almost resembles a legitimate piece of storytelling.
It’s nice to see DARK SKIES abandon the “Ignorant Plot” that fueled its immediate predecessors (in which ignorant characters wandered around for 90 minutes, seldom if ever getting a read on what was after them), but it is all for naught, since the conclusion is predetermined. (If that sounds like a spoiler, don’t blame me: DARK SKIES’ poster spells it out: “Once you’ve been chose, you belong to them.”)
As if sensing that predictability is a problem, writer-director Scott Stewart tosses in a last-minute – well, “surprise” would be too strong a word, as would “twist,” so let’s say “shift” – regarding the identity of the victim being targeted. This does not change the outcome in any meaningful way, nor does it lend any kind of dramatic frisson; it merely provides an illusion of the unexpected, a pretense toward actual plotting – as opposed to simply filling in the same old template.
I get the impression that Stewart intended a little bit more. Early scenes of the children’s pet lizard hints at some kind of foreshadowing – the aliens look down on us as we look down on animals – but nothing comes of the idea. The attempt to weave the alien scenario into the family drama suggests an attempt to provide a darker alternative to M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (which is echoed and quoted in several ways), but we never truly identify with the storytelling as anything more than an excuse to stitch together the scares, and any attempt at a dramatic resolution is short-circuited by the de rigueur denouement.

An alien makes a shadowy appearance behind Keri Russell.
An alien makes a shadowy appearance behind Keri Russell.

If you are a fan of previous horror films from Blumhouse Productions, you will probably enjoy the same old song one more time. The cast of non-stars do a decent job of portraying everyday people. As usual, the slow build-up of suspense is carefully calculated, and the creepy set pieces are effectively handled. If only the scenario could weave a more convincing plot thread, there might be a real movie here. (In one of the scripts more amusing moments of lip-service, the inexplicable – and frankly pointless – scare tactics of the aliens are rationalized by the claim that the invaders are exploiting our fears, for reasons unknown – presumably, it’s some kind of psychological behavioral experiment?)
I feel a bit treacherous for shedding so much negative light on DARK SKIES. After all, Blumhouse Productions strives to craft horror films that rely on subtlety rather than shocks, on atmosphere rather than action. Their commodity is rare in today’s cinematic marketplace, so they deserve recognition for proving that this approach can sell tickets, but as the lackluster debut of DARK SKIES shows ($8.9-million for a sixth-place opening weekend) Blumhouse needs to infuse its formula with a little more variety and creativity.
DARK SKIES (February 22, 2013). Written and directed by Scott Stewart. PG-13. In widescreen and Dolby Digital. Produced by Blumhouse Productions. Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L. J. Benet.

Horror's Fallen Heroes: Village of the Damned (1960)

village of the damned color lobby cardIn horror cinema, nothing so much becomes a character’s life as the leaving of it. It is de rigueur to see screen victims beaten, bitten and bled out, clawed and jawed, decapitated, eviscerated, and even evaporated. These fates are not reserved merely for the anonymous extras (the equivalent of STAR TREK’s red-shirted bit players) who walk on long enough to serve as the monster menu’s crunchy appetizer before the main course arrives; at least since George Romero grimly dispatched Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1960), the audience identification figure has not been exempt from untimely termination. Generally, these dreadful demises are portrayed as tragic twists of fate or unexpectedly ironic outcomes; too often today, there is an arbitrary air of attempting to thwart expectations, as if a dramatically satisfying (i.e., “happy”) ending were somehow suspect, requiring a last-minute zinger to alert the audience to the filmmaker’s hip detachment. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” seems to be the message reverberating in the auditorium after the curtain goes down and the lights go up. Or is it?
Although it may be easy to overlook, the history of horror provides us with many exceptions, characters who died not as victims but as heroes, martyrs to cinematic mayhem who act as on-screen surrogates for the better angels in our nature, sacrificing life and (most definitely) limb, proving that death, whenever it comes and in whatever guise, need not be synonymous with despair.

George Sanders as Gordon Zellaby in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
George Sanders as Gordon Zellaby in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

Exhibit A: Gordon Zellaby, artfully embodied by George Sanders in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), director Wolf Rilla’s adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, which portrays a stealth invasion launched from a small British village, where unconscious women have been impregnated, giving birth to eerily aloof blond children with alien abilities. (“Cuckoos,” in case you did not know, are birds that lay their eggs in the nest of other birds, which then unwittingly raise the hatchlings as their own.)
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.
Gordon attempts to reach his "son" David (Martin Stephens
Gordon attempts to reach his "son" David (Martin Stephens

The scenario has the local population understandably perturbed, especially when the strange children begin using some form of hypnotic mind control to force their victims to kill themselves. The intellectual Gordon, however, believes that the children are reacting defensively. Acting as their teacher, he strives to reach them on a human, emotional level but finds himself coming up against a metaphoric “brick wall,” even with his “son” David (Martin Stephens).
As the children’s power swells to ever more disturbing proportions, and as word comes that an Eastern block country has dealt with a similar situation by nuking an entire village, Gordon eventually realizes that his truce with David is only temporary, that no permanent accord can be reached, and that the fate of humanity will be imperiled if the children ever manage to leave Midwich. But how can Gordon stop an enemy that can reach into his mind to see any plot he may concoct?
These are the eyes that paralyze - how to thwart them when they can read your mind?
These are the eyes that paralyze - how to thwart them when they can read your mind?

The answer, ironically, is another brick in the wall- this one an image on which Gordon focuses his mind, creating a mental block that hampers the children’s mind-reading powers. On the evening when young David expects Gordon to provide a plan to spirit the children out of the village, Gordon instead packs a bomb in a suitcase, sets the timer, and contrives an excuse to get his wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) out of the house.
Sanders’ performance here is subtle and spot-on. While putting on a happy face, he displays enough resignation – just a touch – to register with the viewing audience, without overplaying to the point that would make us wonder why Anthea cannot see it.* Sanders also lends a wonderfully sentimental touch to what could have been a very cornball moment – when Gordon instructs his pet dog to “look after your mistress,” underlining the fact that, very soon in the future, Gordon himself will no longer be there to look after Anthea himself.
Gordon tries to lecture his students while keeping his mind off what is in the briefcase.
Gordon tries to lecture his students while keeping his mind off what is in the briefcase.

After Anthea is safely on the road, Sanders enters the lecture room, places his briefcase (with the hidden bomb) on the desk, and begins to deliver his lesson. David, eager to leave before the British military can take action along the lines of what happened in Eastern Europe, soon realizes that Gordon is not thinking about his lecture. David and the other children focus their minds on Gordon, chipping away at the mental image of a brick wall until – too late – they see the ticking time bomb that is truly at the center of Gordon’s attention.
Zellaby's mental brick wall crumbles, revealing the hidden time bomb.
Zellaby's mental brick wall crumbles, revealing the hidden time bomb.

Fortunately for humanity, the bomb goes off, obliterating Gordon and the “Midwich Cuckoos.” Anthea, who has grown suspicious over Gordon’s behavior, returns – but only in time to see the explosion from a distance. Standing in for the audience, her sense of loss becomes our loss; the fact that she survives tells us that the loss has not been in vain. Triumph and tragedy intermingle; the ending cannot be considered “happy” in any conventional sense, and yet it is thoroughly satisfying – an emotional catharsis as profound as any ever recorded on celluloid.

Village of the Damned 1960 The End

Over 50 years after its premiere, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED remains remarkably effective, thanks largely to its low-key, convincing approach, but what truly elevates the film to classic status is the self-sacrifice of the conclusion. Personally, I cannot separate Gordon Zellaby, the character, from George Sanders, the actor. Not that the two personalities overlap in any meaningful way; rather, I am referring to Sanders’ at least partially self-molded images as a rogue and even a cad. His roles in such classic films as THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945), THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR (1947) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) showcase a certain selfish, cynical disdain, suggesting a man who cared little for the world around him except insofar as it provided him with personal pleasure – an attitude that seemed to match Sanders own, as evinced in the title of his autobiography (Memoirs of a Professional Cad) and in the text of his 1965 suicide note:

Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.

Sanders’s real-life suicide was far from the heroic self-sacrifice of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, but that contrast, for me, only underlines the effectiveness of the film. Great drama galvanizes our collective psyche with the prospect of personal evolution, often though not necessarily in the form of redemption. A good guy who remains a good guy is not compelling; however, our souls are stirred when a character who has fallen from grace (as have all of us, to some extent or other) rises and returns to the fold like the Prodigal Son.

George Sanders and Barbara Shelley
George Sanders and Barbara Shelley in a publicity shot from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED

On some level, that evolution exists in the screenplay, with Gordon Zellaby shifting from protecting the children out of personal scientific curiosity to destroying them out of concern for the world inhabited by his loved ones,particularly Anthea. For me, the transition is much more powerful in the context of Sanders’ previous roles. On the cinema screen of my mind, it is as if this man who never cared for anything but himself finally found a cause that brought out the best in him, urging him to do a “far, far better thing” than he had ever done before.
Fortunately, most of us will never be forced into a situation demanding such noble action. But should the occasion arise, Gordon Zellaby has set the bar, in our minds – as have the many other Fallen Heroes of Horror, whose exploits I hope to share with you from time to time…

  • As a matter of fact, she does see it, but doesn’t realize its significance until – fortunately for Gordon’s plan – she has gotten too far from home to be jeopardized by the bomb.


THE WATCH: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 3:30

Watch Out! The neighborhood watch team gets its hands on alien weaponry

Once again, the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast takes a look at what’s new in the world of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. This week, with regular host Dan Persons on hiatus, Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski target THE WATCH, the new comedy starring Ben Stiller as a man who starts a neighborhood watch that uncovers an alien invasion. Co-stars Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade mug mercilessly amid the frat-boy antics, but if that’s the sort of thing you love, then you will love this.
Also on the menu: Steve offers a 50th-anniversary look back at INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES (1962), an inept alien invasion comedy misfire that makes THE WATCH look positively Kubrickian in comparision; and Lawrence thumbs through Ray Harryhausen’s Fantasy Scrapbook.

'Taken" Director to Helm Raimi's 'EDF'?

X_Earth_FlareAccording to The Hollywood Reporter, Pierre Morel (TAKEN) is in talks to direct EDF (EARTH DEFENSE FORCE). 
The project is being produced by Sam Raimi (SPIDER-MAN) and Bill Block, the head of film finance outfit QED International, and the article describes ot as a “giant alien invasion movie.”
Warner Brothers is set to distribute the film, which will feature the contries of Earth assembling a space defense force to combat the alien threat.
Sounds kinda like a jazzed-up Toho sci-fi/monster film.

Skyline: Cinefantastique Podcast 1:40

Skyline (2010)

This week, the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast watches the skies – or, rather, the SKYLINE! Tune in as Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski (minus the missing-in-action Lawrence French) take a stand against brain-eating aliens intent on taking over Tinsel Town – and apparently the rest of the world. It’s a special effects-filled mash-up of WAR OF THE WORLDS, CLOVERFIELD, INDEPENDENCE DAY, and other alien invasion films, one that again poses the age-old genre question that has been on the minds of characters at least since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: “Should I stay, or should I go?” (with all due apologies to The Clash). Also this week: the death of Dino DeLaurentiis, plus the usual round-up of news, events, and home video releases.


'Skyline': FX Triumphs Over Plot – Review


My greatest regret about seeing SKYLINE is that I paid full price ($12.50), and I took a date. So it was $25 to see a 1950’s Saturday matinee movie on CGI steroids.
It was actually fun, in a mindless sort of way. If I was 14 years old, I probably would have thought it was cool. Some of the things that transpire are fairly interesting and somewhat surprising, even halfway clever—though none of it has any significant payoff, emotional or otherwise.
30-something characters with no discernable last names, Jarrod (HAVEN’s Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson, NCIS) have come from NYC to Los Angeles for Jarrod’s friend Terry’s (SCRUBS’ Donald Faison) birthday party. Terry has made good, apparently in the field of special effects, or as far as I can make out. This allows him to lead a lavish, somewhat libertine lifestyle in the penthouse of a fancy high-tech highrise.
 After a night of heavy partying, they’re woken early to discover that strange blue lights are attracting people who are then snatched away by invading alien spacecraft. Jarrod nearly becomes one of them—more than once, and this light causes purple spider web blotches to appear on one’s face and body. They fade if the victim is pulled away from the light, but the characters are left to wonder what the effects might be.
There’s not much time for introspection, however— because though stuck in the building, there are various attempts to escape, lots of bickering between not-all-that-likeable people, and plenty of action with wild alien devices, creatures, and giant monsters. And it’s only a hair over 90 minutes long.
target-earth-robotSKYLINE reminds me oddly of a cross between TARGET EARTH (1954) and INDEPENDENCE DAY, with little bit of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS mixed in. There are odd mechaniods that look like something from THE MATRIX, and monsters with a mix of tentacles and vaginal mouths that might resemble a nameless horror from H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares. There are a lot of “borrowings” from various other productions, I suspect they even picked up a gimmick from THE OUTER LIMITS’ “The Architects of Fear”.
It really is very much like an old, low budget sci-fi B-movie—only instead of a modest handful of special effects, everything including the kitchen sink was tossed into the FX budget.
This shouldn’t be surprising, as SKYLINE is directed by FX artists The Brothers Strause (ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM). It apparently cost a half million to shoot, with around ten million spent on special effects. And on that budget, the FX are pretty damn good.


When was the last time a film with that low a budget played on so many screens? 28 DAYS LATER? LAND OF THE DEAD? Both of those are much more visceral and powerful films than this one, and they pretty much make sense. However, if you’re in the mood for action and spectacle while munching on popcorn, SKYLINE is reasonably entertaining.
Just try to avoid paying $12.50 to see it. I hear it’s going to Netflix right after it finishes its run. That could be soon.
Then again, I also hear they’re planning a sequel.

War of the Worlds (1953) – Film & DVD Review

Producer George Pal’s 1953 movie version of the H.G. Wells novel is lavishily mounted and visually stunning, thanks to imaginative production design and impressive technical effects — a rare example (along with FORBIDDEN PLANET) of a big-budget ’50s science-fiction film from a major Hollywood studio, made during an era swamped with low-budget B-pictures and independent productions.
Taking the basic concept from the book, Pal produced a popular Hollywood entertainment, complete with a love story played out against the backdrop of the devastation of Earth; fortunately, the devastation still packs a wallop. A nicely structured build-up leads to scattered initial encounters, and only gradually does it become apparent that Earth is helpless against the invasion. The sense of futility is nicely conveyed, especially in the riot-like mass exodus in the third act, and director Byron Haskin manages to wring a few horror-movie type scares (the old claw-on-the-shoulder gag, nicely done in a dark, abandoned farm house), thanks to the creepy-looking Martians, who are seldom more than glimpsed. With humanity unable to save itself, it’s up to our microscopic accidental allies to do the job for us -perhaps the only time in film history that a deus ex machina ending has really worked.
The screenplay by Barre Lyndon updates the setting from the Victorian England to the (then) contemporary United States. As in the book, the Martians themselves are physically weak; it is only in their machines that they are a threat. But the machines themselves are radically redesigned and far more invulnerable: graceful green hovercraft that float suspended above barely glimpsed electro-magnetic pulses (an effect shown only in their first appearances, for fear that the on-set electricity would set the effects stage on fire!) and are shielded by an invisible force field that can even deflect an atomic blast. Also changed are their weapons: the lethal black smoke is nowhere to be seen, and the heat ray becomes a disintegration ray (notably similar to the one used by the alien robot Gort in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL two years previously).
These changes actually help keep the film faithful to the spirit of the novel, which portrayed the world’s most powerful nation humbled by an almost infinitely more powerful alien adversary. Many incidents find their way from the page to the screen, but for the most part the film is an original work fashioned as a crowd-pleasing entertainment. Rather than Wells’ humbling warning about the precarious place humanity holds at the top of the food change, the film offers reassurances that even the worst challengers imaginable will be defeated because God is on our side.
This becomes evident in a number of ways. Wells was crafting an ironic scenario in which the Martian invasion acted as a magnified mirror image of British imperialism: that is, a technologically superior army using its advanced weaponry to evict and/or annihilate a native population. The film is all about Cold War paranoia and the fear of “Godless Communism,” with the Martians standing in, more or less, for the Soviet Union. (In a montage of Martians attacking countries around the world, the USSR is conspicuous by its absence.) We know beyond doubt that the Martians are evil when the heartlessly blast into oblivion a priest trying to communicate with them. (Of course, he is reciting the famous psalm “As I walk through the Valley of Shadow, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me Lord.”)
The editing even implies that it was not so much bacteria as True Love (sanctioned by God, of course) that defeats the alien enemy: Searching through the devastated streets of Los Angeles (a marvelously well-done sequence that includes a convincingly shot destruction of City Hall), our scientist-hero (Gene Barry) finds his love interest (Ann Robinson) in a church. He’s not there to save her; they just want to be together when the end comes. But as the walls begin crumbling around them, they embrace, and the film cuts to a shot of a Martian war machine crashing to the ground. The juxtaposition of images (hug=crash) seems to imply a cause-and-effect relationship, at least on a metaphoric level, whatever the narration may tell us about Martian lack of immunity to Earth’s micro-organisms.
The cast of characters is fairy typical for the era: brave men and vulnerable women. Fortunately, the actors fill their rolls well, emerging as likable archetypes — charming to watch even if they are not fleshed out much beyond their professions (the General, the Scientist, etc). And the script gets in a few nice touches. (Barry is first seen wearing glasses; he tells Robinson they are for viewing distant objects and that he doesn’t need them when he wants to examine something up close –whereupon he takes them off and turns his eyes full upon her, signalling his romantic interest.)
The special effects were state-of-the-art for the time, and they remain impressive today. If a few wires are visible to discerning eyes, at least the images are interesting in design and colorful in execution; something about the smooth, sleek look of the Martian hovercraft make them fascinating to watch, even if their miniature origins are sometimes apparent. Although subsequent films (such as INDEPENDENCE DAY) would outdo WAR OF THE WORLDS in terms of depicting mass destruction, this film retains its classic status thanks to the dramatic conviction with which it portrays its characters helplessly fighting against an unstoppable enemy bent on driving humanity into extinction.


The 1898 novel by H.G. Wells portrays the devastation that befalls England when Martians land sometime near the beginning of the 20th century. The novel reverts to a practise that the author used on The Time Machine- that of using unnamed character types to express viewpoints in line with their professions, thus allowing the author to express his thematic concerns unburdened by the requirements of individual psychology. Truly, the point of the book is to act as a sort of assault on the sort human complacency that assumes mankind’s domination of the Earth will always go unchallenged: “[B]efore we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” The book’s scenes of Victorian era military equipment crushed beneath the foot of mechanical Martian tripods (equipped with heat rays and poisonous black smoke) are chilling. Particularly memorable is the chapter entitled “Thunderchild,” in which an ironclad warship protects a boatload of refugees fleeing the country, in the process destroying two of the Martian war machines before being melted and sent to the bottom of the ocean by the lethal heat ray. The book also introduces the deus ex machina resolution (the Martians are destroyed by Earth bacteria, to which they have no immunity) that would become an oft-repeated cliché in sci-fi movies and TV shows: nature defeats the invaders after mankind has failed.The book’s scenes of panicked evacuation and of the human military being swatted down like helpless insects are devastatingly memorable (and have been reasonably well served by the film medium), but the novel has other virtues that are not so cinematic. In the later chapters, the author takes the opportunity to expound upon the nature of the Martians (one of the first literary attempts ever to conceive of what an alien race might be like) and speculates upon the evolutionary path that ultimately made them, essentially, walking brains (Wells’ description sounds somewhat like an octopus: a head supported by legs that look like tentacles). Of course, the ultimate irony is that the Martians are not so different from us; in fact, the author even more or less tells us that they are what we will be after a few more million years of evolution.
WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Produced by George Pal. Directed by Byron Haskin. Screenplay by Barre Lyndon, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite.