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Old 09-22-2005, 05:07 PM
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Scored: 10
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Default War of the Worlds, The (Pendragon)




Reviewer: Jeremy
Review Date: September 22, 2005

Released by: Sterling
Release date: 6/14/2005
MSRP: $14.99
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes


ďNo 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; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.Ē Ė The War of the Worlds

The Story

inline ImageDue to the natural cycle of their separate orbits, Earth and the planet Mars are in unusually close alignment, and the red planet is now at a point so close to it that it can be seen even with the naked eye. We first meet our protagonist, an unnamed writer (Anthony Piana), as he meets with a scientist named Ogilvy (Jack Clay) at an observatory in the English countryside. They note the presence of strange green flashes on the planet's surface. Ogilvy dismisses them as volcanic activity or meteorites striking the planet's surface. Nonetheless, soon after the countryside is lit aflame when a glowing object crashes during the night. The next morning Ogilvy searches for the object and discovers it has impacted in a sand pit, and it is definitely not a meteor. It instead appears to be a cylinder of some type, made of metal and glowing hot. To his horror, he hears movement inside. Something is alive in there. He runs to go get help.

Soon a crowd of spectators has gathered around the sight, amongst them our protagonist. The cylinder begins to unscrew and a hideous, octopus-like creature - a Martian - emerges but quickly disappears again. Then, suddenly, a metallic arm with a large disc at the end reaches out of the sand pit. Pointing the disc at the crowd of onlookers, the Martians proceed to incinerate the whole lot of them with a heat ray, which turns them into skeletons. Our hero just barely escapes as the Martians begin turning the ray onto nearby buildings. Later, as the British Army shows up to do battle with the invaders, our hero reluctantly separates himself from his beloved wife (Susan Goforth) by sending her to the presumed safety of the village of Leatherhead.

inline ImageFrom there, British society begins to fall apart as more and more cylinders land. The Martians begin using giant multi-legged war machines that shoot their heat ray and discharge poison gas. The military can do little to stop the invaders, and law and order starts to break down. Our protagonist meets an artillery gunner (James Lathrop), the apparent sole survivor of an army company massacred by the Martians. He also meets a church curate (John Kaufmann), and the two find themselves having to rely on each other - despite the curate's growing mental derangement - when the house they are in is hit by a landing Martian cylinder, and the two find themselves hiding in it's ruins amidst dozens of Martians crawling around outside!

inline Image Though it could scarcely have been realized at the time, the year 1898 proved to be an important year in the history of the world. That year saw Spain finally finished off as a world power when it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the United States, an event that would dramatically hasten America's rise as a world power herself. In France, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium, laying the groundwork for the modern field of nuclear physics, while in Britain, as his country was signing a ninety-nine year lease on the city of Hong Kong, writer Herbert George Wells published War of the Worlds, the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories. Predominantly science fiction in content, the story that Wells created is still very much a horror tale. Foreshadowing the importance that technological superiority would play in twentieth century warfare, and how that technology would also lead to a dramatic increase in civilian casualties, the story features horror in large and small varieties. On the macro level there is the psychological shock of seeing the fabric of society collapse almost immediately after the Martian onslaught begins, as uncivilized behavior soon becomes commonplace. On the micro level, the sheer destructiveness of the Martian technology is shown many times as people are incinerated by heat rays and suffocated by poison gas. But Wells also allowed himself to imbue his story with some very ghoulish aspects as well. The Martians are not so much an advanced civilization as they are technologically sophisticated parasites, and they even nourish themselves by draining the blood of human beings.

inline ImageOnly just recently released, this film version of War of the Worlds already has a convoluted history. The film is the brainchild of writer-director Timothy Hines, the head and founder of the small indie company Pendragon Pictures. Prior to its release, Hines went on the online promotional circuit, singing the praises of his forthcoming work and spinning tales of how Paramount (producer of the just-released Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise adaptation of the film) supposedly was throwing up legal barriers to its release. A theatrical release was imminent, fans were told, and Hines allegedly claimed that the budget on his film was around $20 million. But yet for the longest time Pendragon's version of War of the Worlds was a no-show. Its initial release day came and went without the film showing up. Fans began to get impatient and frustrated. Bill Warren, a respected and accomplished genre historian, even reported on one online message board that he had been told by someone in the know that the Pendragon version didnít actually exist, aside from a little footage shot to try and entice investors to give enough cash to finish the film. Just when it got to the point where fans were ready to give up, DVD copies of Pendragon's version started showing up in bargain bins at Wal-Mart with no fanfare. The film, after all that, does actually exist. Oh how it exists.

inline ImageHines promoted this version as the first adaptation of it that was completely accurate to H.G. Wells' novel, both in story and setting, and in this instance he at least was telling the truth. In fact, it follows the novel virtually blow by blow from beginning to end, right down to the fact that, just as in the novel, the main character remains nameless. But rather than this being a virtue, it actually does little positive except set the film apart from the other adaptations of the novel. While promoting his own version, Steven Spielberg commented that the problem with Wells' novel was that it wasn't cinematic. Though his statement drips with Hollywood arrogance, it is in the most literal sense true. Even the most cinematic novels, those by writers hoping to land that Hollywood option, do not usually translate well onto the screen unless some adaptation is made. This is true even more so for a novel like War of the Worlds, which was written at the dawn of cinema when the medium was nothing more than a curiosity piece and using it to tell long narrative stories was completely unheard of.

Timothy Hines' film pays a heavy price for its adherence to the novel. It is almost exactly three hours long, and although the pace is not actually as leaden as some have complained, it does indeed wear out its welcome in the end. There was absolutely no need for this to have been a three-hour film. This adaptation could have lost at least an hour through judicious editing, and had Hines been smart enough to do this he would not only have improved the pace of the finished film, but he would also have generated enough deleted scenes for a good special edition DVD. Had he been smarter still he would have been more prudent in his screenwriting and removed incidents from the novel that weren't particularly important. By lessening the amount of footage he had to actually shoot he would have saved both time and money, two things that could have been used to improve to the film's technical credits.

inline ImageThose technical credits are, in fact, the weakest aspects of the production. The period setting is almost never convincing, though obvious care was taken in terms of set and costume design. The necessity of recreating late nineteenth century Britain on a limited budget led to a good deal of CGI and model work being used to create the exteriors of villages and of period London. The problem with this approach is that the CGI available to the filmmakers was of a very poor quality. It's a very bad sign that the menu screens for this DVD have better computer animation than the movie itself. In fact, the special effects are so bad as to be insulting. The physical designs of the various Martian war machines are not bad at all, but the animation that brings them to life is even below that of the cheapest CGI seen on TV. The Martian heat ray zaps people into unconvincing skeletons while a climactic battle between a British warship and Martian war machines is at the height of visual ugliness. In the scenes involving the British Army fighting the Martians the live action footage is never integrated convincingly with the CGI. It is sad that, over fifty years later, similar scenes in the 1953 George Pal War of the Worlds are still more convincing than the ones on display here. Special effects are even used when they really shouldn't even be necessary, such as shots of wagons traveling across the countryside.

inline ImageAs the protagonist, Anthony Piana fails to make much of an impression, but then again neither does anyone else in the cast. Piana, who aside from his fake looking moustache remains clean-shaven no matter how many days he spends sitting in a dark hole with the curate (if only I could have his face - it would save me a great deal of effort every morning), delivers his lines in an overly theatrical manner that would be more appropriate in a stage play where every movement and line has to be exaggerated so that even those in the back row can hear and see whatís going on. The rest of the cast mostly follows suit. The curate, as played by John Kaufmann, is particularly bad in this respect. This is a cast of complete amateurs, and it shows.

I do not know whether or not Timothy Hines is aware of the slagging his movie has taken over the various online discussion forums, though I imagine that if he is he might very well feel as the rest of us might feel if we discovered that everyone in the neighborhood was saying our new baby was both ugly and retarded. This was clearly a labor of love for him, the product of countless hours of effort and hard work, and as disappointing as the final results are, some of Hines' passion still shows through. It may not be a good movie, but it is also undeserving of the nickname some wise acres have given it - "Plan 9 From Mars"!

Image Quality

War of the Worlds is presented in a 16x9 enhanced transfer letterboxed at exactly 1.78:1. The movie was apparently shot on a digital video format, and in this respect I will give Timothy Hines (who served as his own director of photography) his due - the videography on this production is noticeably more polished and professional-looking than that of many other recent low budget shot-on-video genre efforts. It is sharp and detailed, and despite the movie's long running time the compression on this disc is expertly handled. Hines rarely uses normal color schemes, preferring instead to awash the image in reds, greens and blues. Even most of the daylight exteriors are given a yellowish tint to them. This unfortunately does have the effect of washing out small details at times and giving way to noticeable oversaturation, though the effect is not nearly as bad as it could have been.

There are some small problems involving grain. Video grain is something of a different beast than grain on conventional film images. While film grain can add texture to an image in the right circumstances, video grain is usually just plain ugly. It becomes noticeable in two specific scenes. The first comes at the 43-minute mark, just after Ogilvy and the rest have been incinerated by the Martians and the protagonist is running for his life. This is a scene which appears to have been shot night-for-night (as opposed to the day-for-night that Hines usually uses), and I suspect that the grain is the result of an attempt, either using the camera itself or during the process of editing, to correct a lack of sufficient light. However, the second instance of grain puzzles me. It occurs around the 161-minute mark, during a scene in which our protagonist is reunited with the artilleryman and a discussion of the Martians ensues. The close-ups of the protagonist suffer from grain, while the close-ups of the artilleryman are free of it. Both appear to have been shot at the same time and in the same lighting conditions, so it puzzles me why one set of shots has this problem and the other doesnít.

Sound

Presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo, War of the Worlds sounds above average. Itís not the most dynamic or inventive soundtrack Iíve ever heard, but it is loud and well balanced. Even the smallest sounds are reproduced accurately and the sound as a whole has more than enough punch to it to keep your speakers active during the action scenes.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageThe supplements on this release are minor. It features a trailer for the theatrical release that the film never had, an H.G. Wells biography and a stills gallery. The stills gallery is the worst kind, that which is mostly made of nothing but screenshots from the movie. Set to music, it runs for about two minutes and the only images it features which aren't screenshots are a few behind-the-scenes photos of the model work involved in the production and a few pieces of promotional artwork. Months in production and countless hours of special effects work, and yet this was the best they could do for a stills gallery?

Final Thoughts

I donít want to say that this adaptation is a waste of time, but considering its lack of cinematic skill and its running time of almost exactly three hours, itís hard to look at this as anything but that. There is simply no payoff for sticking with this movie, except perhaps morbid curiosity. This DVD is priced right and of above average quality, but really, itís hard to imagine that this movie belongs anywhere except the bargain bin in Wal-Mart where I found my copy.

Rating

Movie - D
Image Quality - B+
Sound Ė B+
Supplements - C

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running Time Ė 2 hours 59 minutes
  • Not rated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English 2.0 Stereo
Supplements
  • Trailer
  • Still gallery
  • H.G. Wells bio

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