DVD Review

Mania Grade: B

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  • Disc Grade: B
  • Reviewed Format: DVD
  • Rated: R
  • Stars: Anthony Piana, Jack Clay, James Lathrop, Darlene Sellers, John Kaufmann, Jamie Lynn Sease, Susan Goforth
  • Writers: H.G. Wells (novel), Timothy Hines & Susan Goforth
  • Director: Timothy Hines
  • Distributor: UAV
  • Original Year of Release: 2005
  • Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
  • Extras: Widescreen; English DD 5.1 & 2.0; Mandarin subtitles; trailers


Pendragon joins the battle

By BRIAN THOMAS     August 16, 2005

A lot of controversy has accompanied Pendragon Pictures' adaptation of H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS. Though the project has been in the works for some years, it arrives on DVD under the shadow of Steven Spielberg's hundred million plus theatrical feature. Spielberg and his distributors Paramount and DreamWorks have had to do a bit of spinning to separate the film from star Tom Cruise's recent obnoxious antics in interviews and the gossip columns, resulting in blockbuster returns at the box office. Despite this, Pendragon claims that studio plants have been up to dirty work to sabotage their release, including planting outrageously negative reviews on internet resources. It seems farfetched that Spielberg's titan would stoop to swat at tiny Pendragon, but then I've seen such low behavior from studio grunts before, and Paramount's deluxe DVD edition of the 1953 George Pal production was reportedly delayed at Spielberg's request. It's sure that Pendragon's version benefits greatly from the theatrical release, but not to the degree that it poses any threat.

False or not, the folks at Pendragon surely agrees with the negative notices in at least one way: their version is too long. Thus, if you own a copy of UAV's July DVD release, you might want to hold onto it, as it's about to become a collector's item. The 180-minute version is being withdrawn this Fall in favor of a re-edited "director's cut", which runs a comparatively reasonable 135 minutes. I can't account for what was cut, but since this is to be the only version in release from this point on, it's the director's cut we review here.

Surely, director Timothy Hines (HOUSE OF THE RISING) was wise to go back to the editing room. His WAR benefits from Spielberg's in more ways than just promotional Spielberg's decision to update the story to contemporary times makes this the only version to use the novel's early 20th century setting, and its extreme faithfulness to the source lends it novelty value if nothing else. Wells' novel, first published in 1898, is very much of its time, despite containing elements that are far ahead of its time. Stylistically, it follows the journalistic spirit of its contemporary British fiction, which was just emerging from the period of long-winded accounts typified by Bram Stoker's DRACULA. The book is not so much about character interaction as it is a local eyewitness account of interplanetary conflict. Wells expands the scope of his lead narrator by giving over part of the tale to his brother, but it's still a tale that needs some adjustment to work as a dramatic piece. Hines' model seems to have been Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS more than anything else, but sometimes an adaptation can be too faithful to its source.

Anthony Piana stars as Wells' unnamed writer, who must be presumed to be Wells himself. An interest in astronomy leads him to be among those to witness via telescope great jets of flame leaping out from the surface of the planet Mars, and coincidentally the first of the invaders' projectiles lands close to his village. A bit of comic relief is produced by the locals' reaction to the newcomers, who seem smugly unconcerned about rumors of monsters roaming about in a pit in the middle of England. This reflects Wells' message quite well: that modern society's overconfidence had gotten the better of it, and a rude awakening was nigh. As quoted in the essay by Charles Keller, director of the American branch of the H.G. Wells Society, included on the disc, Wells wrote, "...in those days the conviction that history had settled down to a sort of jog-trot comedy was very widespread indeed."

Having seen the horrible Martians firsthand and witnessed the effects of their heat ray weapon upon the militia, the writer borrows a carriage to move his wife (producer Susan Goforth) out of harm's way. Meanwhile, the Martians have assembled huge tripod war machines, and emerge from their pit to rampage across the countryside. The writer, foolishly seeking to return the borrowed transport, has it knocked out from under him by the advancing Martians, and spends the rest of the story trying to survive and reunite with his wife. For a short time, he travels with a lost artilleryman, who is subsequently lost when a Martian machine approaches. He gets an even closer look at the Martians when on of their cylinders lands next to a farmhouse where he's taken shelter with a young cleric. This sequence with the author huddling in the ruins as the Martian horrors progress all around him is one of the novel's and the movie's best sections. It illustrates another of Wells' points: a foolish reliance on organized religion, as the practical writer attempts to insure their survival, the cleric cracks under pressure, wolfing down their meager provisions and threatening to give away their presence with his mad ranting.

Hines doesn't fare so well with the other branch of his story. The writer's brother (Piana again) flees London and meets up with a young woman and her sister-in-law, who have become separated from her husband. He attempts to protect them from their fellow refugees on the road, and as they make their way aboard a ship to cross the channel, witness a sea battle between the navy and the Martians. In all, it's a highly ambitious production, involving a portrayal of Great Britain over a hundred years ago, along with all the special effects required by the story. Unfortunately, it's all too often too ambitious for Pendragon's resources. The mannered script, faithful to Wells' text, requires performances beyond the depth of the cast on hand. It's not that the dialogue is bad it's just very much of its time, and it can sound bad if not delivered correctly. Piana seems to be a decent enough actor, but much is required of him, and sporting a poorly pasted on mustache and accent, he just doesn't have the powerful screen presence needed to carry the show. Using him again to play the (non-twin) brother only confuses things. Creative use is made of puppets, miniatures in CGI in the f/x department, but too often compositing is used to make up for a lack of practical locations and effects. Hines attempts to mask these flaws by processing his images, adopting the atmosphere of early silent cinema to gloss over defects with style. This technique, reminiscent of that used in SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, looks like it will work much better in Hines' upcoming feature CHROME, but combined with the restrictions of this project, it only makes his WAR OF THE WORLDS look amateurish and old fashioned. There's a definitely feeling that this WAR is being fought on soundstages and tabletops, not across the English countryside.

Hines deserves praise for sticking to his conviction that Wells' story as written deserves dramatization, and he proves his point. The failings of WAR OF THE WORLDS can't be attributed to Wells, only the strengths. And if Hines had a hundred million dollars in his budget, there's no doubt that the money would be well spent. But with the cards he's dealt, his film only functions as a sort of lavishly illustrated version of the novel, and not a movie that triumphs on its own merits. Definitely worth a look for serious science fiction fans, but all others are advised to take it with a grain of salt.

Copyright © 2005 Brian Thomas, author of the massive book VideoHound's DRAGON: ASIAN ACTION & CULT FLICKS.

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