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War of the Worlds Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    War of the Worlds Review
    “What would you do if I told you that Earth was being invaded by aliens from another planet?”

    Well, if this well-intentioned but, sadly quite lame, sci-fi show from 1988 is anything to go by, we'd set up a crack team of four people - yes, four! - two off-the-wall scientists, a starched, by-the-numbers commando and a wheelchair-bound computer-boffin to answer the threat, and take the fight straight back to those pesky, planet-peckish aliens running rampant around North America in new Dr. Who-style human bodysuits. So, not to be confused at all with Steven Spielberg's post 9/11 allegory or Jeff Wayne's musical version, this Greg Strangis-created story takes an actually rather bold and clever approach by setting itself up as a quasi-sequel to George Pal's celebrated 1953 original spin on H.G. Wells' classic yarn. His show takes the initial premise, battled so valiantly by Ann Robinson and Gene Barry in glorious Technicolor, and states that the events really happened, the virus-riddled alien bodies were hidden in steel drums (shades of Return Of The Living Dead) and dotted around the United States in various secret bases, and the whole shebang so hushed-up by the Government that the American population has suffered from collective amnesia ever since. Of course, it only takes a bunch of nerdy terrorists (check out the leader when he has trouble recalling his group's own name during a rehearsal for a video broadcast) to attack one of these installations, shoot up a couple of innocuous-looking drums and -hey presto - there's alien-egg on everyone's face. And, taking a cue from Carpenter's The Thing, there's still life in their remains, the human bacteria not having quite done the job as thoroughly as once thought. This time around, though, the aliens have a new plan for global takeover. Left without their machines of war and most of their technology, they find a way to inhabit their human victims to use them as hosts as they set about reviving the apparently thousands of their brethren that the authorities have in storage. Thus, even Invasion Of The Body Snatchers gets a courteous nod, and we have a partway-cool hook into this on-going underground struggle that, initially at least, must have looked terrific on paper.

    “Think of me as your spiritual leader.”

    “You're just weird, Blackwood.”

    Fighting the good fight, we have the maverick astrophysicist, Dr. Harrison Blackwood, a college professor by day, SETI-activist on the sly and orphan from the original War Of The Worlds. He suffers from the occasional flashback that allows us a glimpse of the award-winning special fx from Pal's movie as the alien manta-ray ships lay waste to Los Angeles - enjoy them when they are on, because they are heaps better than the effects on offer throughout the TV show. Played by Jared Martin, who had previously starred in another ill-fated sci-fi series called Fantastic Journey from 1977 - of which I recall only the glowing green cloud title sequence, yet reckon I still enjoyed as a youngster - Blackwood has a nice enough B-movie likeability, with Martin's theatrical voice a verbal dead ringer for Charlton Heston's, his character solidified by a piercingly intense stare and a mischievous smile. Partnering him is the show's sex appeal, all bundled up in Lynda Mason Green's more practical scientist, Dr. Suzanne McCullough. A newcomer to the battle in the Pilot episode, Revival, she allows Blackwood to fill us all in on the back-story in one of those tedious expositional sequences and then, subsequently, she and we are introduced to Blackwood's main ally in Philip Akin's crippled-but-cool Jamaican keyboard-jockey, Norton. I'm tempted to think that the show's writers created him as a joke - working on a computer all day long under the name of a famous piece of anti-virus software, whilst engaged in a battle to find a virus that will finally destroy these creatures - but this show had gone under long before PC's and the Internet had become household essentials. I have to admit that I found Akin's portrayal a sheer annoyance throughout the entire season and resorted to speeding through his scenes on many occasions. He is symptomatic of the show's half-baked attempts at creating humour during the moments of respite from the alien-bashing campaign. But, whereas, his acting ineptitude is irksome, there are two more performances in here that elevate non-talent to almost stratospheric proportions.

    “You're about to witness a rare thing, Doctor ... Delta Squad in action!”

    Taking up the mantle of action-man derring-do, we get Richard Chaves as half-Cherokee Indian Col. Paul Ironside, a bizarrely red-bereted Special Forces commander, whose inflexible military mind results in the death of his esteemed - yet incredibly inept - team of super-commandos and subsequent zombification by the aliens in the very first episode. Now, I like Richard Chaves - mainly because of his fun role as Poncho in Arnie's awesome Predator - but he is simply one of the worst actors I've seen in a long while. I mean he's done all this stuff before and much better, too - crack soldier battling an alien force - but here his ridiculous posturing and strutting, and his Z-grade delivery of the duffest pseudo-stoic lines imaginable just signpost what a talent-vacuum he really is. Yet, the strange thing is that, no matter how bad he gets, the more entertaining he becomes. He continually competes with Blackwood over plans, has occasional moments of native-heritage-awareness and an appallingly jingoistic stance that is as daft as it is unbelievable. Another thing to look out for is the casual clothes he wears when not in his mediocre-budget TV soldier-outfit. Honest to God, I know that this was still the eighties, but just have a gander at the yellow shorts, stripy polo-shirt and long socks ensemble he adopts in the episode A Multitude Of Idols. Not even his wielding of an Uzi could prevent his endless ridicule for that abomination. And there are many more instances of on-and-off-duty taste abandonment littered throughout the season. The other culprit that talent seemed to bypass is the once-great John Vernon as General Wilson, the overall commander of Earth's somewhat small-unit strike force. A wonderful character actor - providing the characters he was playing were either idiotically verbose Mayors of Dirty Harry's San Francisco, or treacherous double-dealing Johnny Reb Majors in Josie Wales' Civil War. Obviously, without the mighty Clint Eastwood to spar with, he simply resorts to punchy cue-card delivery and standing around trying to look important. Terrible, folks, but in a funny way.

    “Find the aliens, Doctor - and stop them before they do more harm.”

    Actually made in Canada, before The X-Files made filming shows there commonplace, the series nevertheless adopts a large-scale approach that sees our heroes flitting around the North American continent, episode after episode and, occasionally, scene after scene, combating the next opportunist scheme that the aliens have up their stolen body's sleeve. Their nefarious plans, run by a trio of masters in a cave in the Nevada desert (suited up in fat chemical suits and gas masks they look like something out of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal) are often quite audacious and offer a nice spread of variety and imagination. The problem lies not with the plotting of their schemes, however - even if all they ever seem to do is stand around in their lair, make speeches and watch their foot soldiers continually fail from afar - it resides with the human side of the conflict, and our regular family of cast members turning up and making last-ditch A-Team style efforts to thwart them. Although there are an agreeable number of human casualties along the way - check out the mass brain drain and a shock eye-gouging - the excitement level is consistently drained by ham-fisted direction from the team of staff directors and, despite the annoying area-hopping, the samey-same feel of many of the countryside locations. Most episodes have the style and pace of a kid's TV film, which is at odds with the show's theme of bodily invasion and replication. This darker element apparently caused the show some moral criticism over its depiction of the horrific dissolving of aliens and the inclusion of some fairly mild gore for their victims - which, admittedly, I found to be a pleasant surprise. Worry not though, for the makeup effects, whilst ambitious, are shot on a shoestring and are just an equivalent to the Beeb's work on our old Doctor Who. Just wait until you see the rubbery aliens without their human disguises. The many shots of those sucker-ended three fingers snagging the unwary by their ankles or their faces are just plain hysterical. Some of these moments of alien abduction are even speeded up, for maximum giggles. And the visual effects are, if anything, far worse. When you consider that the original, back in 1953, won an Academy Award for it depiction of aliens on the laser-blasting rampage, you're going to feel incredibly cheated by the opticals created here. That horrible old-school look of big foggy clouds around each superimposed effect thuds home with a depressing regularity. The pilfered, and occasionally mimicked, shots of the death-ray beam canons may look nice but they just serve to remind you how much better a time you'd have watching the movie instead.

    “When the soldier's right ... he's right!

    But there are some neat ideas at play in this protracted drama. The whole homage aspect of the show is quite admirable, although somewhat derailed by a lack of funds and a dearth of real talent. But some episodes are reasonably entertaining and take agreeably nostalgic steps in the right direction. We get to see the manta-ray ships take flight once more - a nifty idea is that they were mothballed and kept in storage in Hangar 15 - not Hangar 18, like we all thought, as that was “just disinformation by the Government”. We see them sat in a vast military warehouse full of packing crates containing alien evidence in a definite visual reference to the current resting place of the Ark from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. One episode, entitled An Eye For An Eye, is a fond remembrance of the infamous Orson Wells fake radio broadcast from 1938. Smartly, the show sets the broadcast up as actually being true and that the events were an earlier alien attempt to gain a foothold in Grover's Mill. But this, initially inspired, notion is swiftly wrecked by the aliens turning up in the hardly-subtle guise of a chapter of bikers amid the town's Halloween festivities, to dig about in the local graveyard for a manta-canon that is buried there. Unfortunately, this all culminates in the blatantly ridiculous scene of them mounting the ray-gun on the roof of a hearse and then going on the warpath against a trio of hackneyed, geriatric militiamen who fought in the forgotten, and now-crass-sounding, first invasion. “No hero's welcome for us,” the old war-horses mutter about their former glory in a Jack Daniels-swilling scene of misplaced sentiment.

    Another episode, entitled Thy Kingdom Come, that calls for more attention is the one in which Ann Robinson (star of Pal's movie, folks, and not The Weakest Link - despite the rather tight human mask that she seems to be wearing) features as an aging fighter of the previous invasion who, having suffered a breakdown, now resides in a mental home. After the events of the movie she apparently became a human electro-magnetic barometer with the power to predict tsunami and earthquakes. Although it is nice to see her again in a cute little nod back to the more superior early days, she overacts terribly and tends to drag down the scenario of the aliens moving to Canada to find more of their kind. Other episodes deal with the hunt for an alien/human hybrid child when a pregnant woman is absorbed an alien, an attempt to have mankind wipe itself out by triggering nuclear war, many bizarre experiments conducted on humans, lots of influential characters arriving who may, or may not, be more than they seem, and a cool discovery by the enemy of an immense stockpile of their kind and their weaponry. But, as with many series of this period, the on-going relationships between the regular cast fall into soap standards and a few naff storylines with personal issues reflected in them. Overall, it is hard to recommend this show as the acting and fx are consistently sub-par, and the plots, whilst initially engaging, are often dealt with in a patronising and cack-handed manner that defuses any tension and atmosphere generated. But, as a curious and, ultimately doomed, remembrance and celebration of a great book, a sly radio broadcast and the pure blend of lush sci-fi and escapism that was the original movie, its heart is definitely in the right place. Still, War Of The Worlds Season One remains more of a show made by fans, than a show made for fans.

    Presented on 6 discs - 2 per thinpak - the DVD package provides all 23 episodes, which run for roughly 45 mins apiece, and includes the feature-length 90 mins pilot. Episodes are as follows (and check out the Biblical overtones) -

    Disc One - The Resurrection|The Walls Of Jericho|Thy Kingdom Come

    Disc Two - A Multitude Of Idols|Eye For An Eye|The Second Seal|Goliath Is My Name

    Disc 3 - To Heal The Leper|The Good Samaritan|Epiphany|Among The Philistines

    Disc 4 - Choir Of Angels|Dust To Dust|He Feedeth Among The Lillies|The Prodigal Son

    Disc 5 - The Meek Shall Inherit|Unto Us A Child Is Born|The Last Supper|Vengeance Is Mine

    Disc 6 - My Soul To Keep|So Shall Ye Reap|The Raising Of Lazarus|The Angel Of Death