The War of the Worlds Review

H.G. Well’s seminal sci-fi tale of an alien invasion has captivated audiences for over a century. Orson Welles, Byron Haskin and Steven Spielberg all famously adapted The War of the Worlds and gave it a contemporary (and American) setting in order to make the aliens a stand in for anything from mass media to the 9/11 attacks. But now, the story finally returns to its English roots, with a BBC series serving as the first adaptation of the story as a period piece, and it mostly works.

Directed by Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None), this adaptation takes place in Edwardian England just a decade after the publication of the original novel. England hasn’t been through a war in quite some time, the might of the British Empire and its lasting endurance rules are the talk of the town, and George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) can’t catch a break. He’s a journalist for the London Evening Gazette and she’s an amateur scientist, but wherever they go, they get second looks. George’s decision to leave a loveless marriage with his cousin for the more educated Amy has estranged him from his family and turned the couple into outsiders of the polite and proper British society. Even George’s formerly close brother, Frederick (Rupert Graves), now a government official, has no time for his sibling and much less so for Amy.

Then, of course, meteorites start landing around the countryside, including one near where George and Amy live. Local astronomer Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle) convinces them to go investigate as locals begin to swamp the landing site to wonder at the site of space debris. Soon, the meteorite rises above the ground and emits a heat ray that instantly kills everyone it touches. Then more meteorites start rising, the tripods show up, and “war” begins.

The show uses familiar scenarios and begins with the classic opening narration of Well’s novel: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.” But it also heavily deviates from the source material. The War of the Worlds uses flash-forwards to explore the time after the so-called “war,” a time where the survivors turn to religion for a solution to their new toxic Earth where nothing ever grows and red weed covers the world, and the elders don’t listen to rational solutions to their problems. While the cast in general does a fine job with their roles, the show is definitely more interested in Tomlinson’s Amy, who becomes the real protagonist of the story and is quick to offer explanations and find ways to survive.  This helps to make the story feel fresh – or as fresh as a hundred-year-old story can feel – due to the flash-forwards playing with audience expectations and familiarity with the source material. 

Without a doubt, the most interesting aspect of War of the Worlds is its setting. The show takes full advantage of its Edwardian era to showcase its production and costume design, which will make your “Downton Abbey but with aliens” dreams come true. More importantly, this allows the show to use the aliens as an allegory for British hubris and colonialist ideals of the time, just as H.G. Wells intended when he first wrote the novel. “This is an Empire on which the sun never sets” is said by a minister in the beginning of the first episode, and “we are the masters of warfare” is often said by officials throughout the show even as their comrades are quickly turn to ash the moment they meet the tripods. This is no Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds, but a story in which humanity’s thirst for conquest and lack of regard for others becomes its doom. The moment a high-ranking official lays eyes on the aliens, his immediate thought is to wage war on the Martians and take over their planet to make the British Empire an interplanetary one.

The War of the Worlds takes a slow-burn approach to the story, taking too long establishing the time period and the society of the time before the alien invasion can begin. Even then, it attempts to do so much and tackle so many themes that it becomes convoluted. Somehow, the show manages to drag as well as rush its story, making it a bit confusing for those who have somehow never seen this story play out before.

If you want to see a different take on The War of the Worlds that comments on our past and sadly also reflects our present, this show will offer something no other major adaptation has done before. If you’re here looking for big action set pieces, you’re looking in the wrong place, but there is still a lot to like and think about this war. For neither does this story live nor die in vain.

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