Contains some mild, general spoilers for the first season
In the run-up to Christmas, the BBC aired its prestige adaptation of HG Wells’ classic 1898 science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. There had been high hopes for it as the first screen version of the story to be set in the source work’s time and English home counties location, but alas the production proved to be deeply flawed and failed in just about every respect, either in its efforts to be a faithful version of Wells’ book or as a bold new reimagining. It was, to put it simply, rather a mess.
As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait for long for another War of the Worlds (note the removal of the definitive article this time around) to come along and sluice the bitter taste of the BBC adaptation’s failure from our mouths, with French production company Studio Canal in association with Fox Networks Group providing a brand new eight-part vision of the venerable tale. I’ll say upfront that Misfits writer Howard Overman’s show is a much stronger dramatic presentation than last year’s dead on arrival effort from the BBC, with some interesting and distinctive elements. However, it has to be said the trade-off for this medium level of success is that any resemblance to the contents of HG Wells’ novel is entirely coincidental.
For one thing, there’s a distinct lack of ‘war’ involved. The first episode depicts the arrival of the aliens in much the same way as Independence Day (with certain similarities to Contact) as the attack is heralded by a mysterious throbbing signal, followed soon after by fireballs falling from the skies which wipe out most of humanity on the spot in something resembling a deadly EMP blast, leaving just a few lucky survivors who happened to have taken sufficient cover in advance.
Among these are university science lecturer Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne) and his estranged ex-wife Helen (Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern), who are seeking their civil servant son Dan who is working in a government bunker. Bill and Helen eventually link up with Sarah Gresham (Natasha Little) and her teenage children Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Tom (Ty Tennant) who are seeking refuge in a silent, dead London. Others in the growing group of survivors include illegal immigrant Kariem (Bayo Gbadamosi) who is handy with firearms, and Ash (Aaron Heffernan) who has been trying to protect patients left in an deserted hospital.
The presence of big name stars from the US and UK like Byrne and McGovern is clearly designed to win international backing and distribution. Despite some high profile filming in London, much of the action actually takes place in France with a mainly French cast necessitating the use of (small, difficult to read at times) English subtitles. Linking the two strands, Sarah’s husband Jonathan (Stephen Campbell Moore) happens to be away on business in Paris at the time of the original attack and finds himself stranded there, eventually falling into the company of Chloe (Stéphane Caillard) and her troubled teenage son Sacha (Mathieu Torloting) who seems to have some sort of psychic connection with his own daughter Emily despite their never having met or even been aware of each other before now. The coincidence of their respective father and mother just happening to bump into each other in the middle of France is a huge stretch, but we’ll let it pass this time.
Elsewhere in the French Alps we are introduced to astronomer Catherine Durand (Léa Drucker) who was the first person to discover the mysterious pulsing signal emanating from the invaders which is seemingly a response to Earth’s own SETI hails. She teams up with a group of soldiers led by Colonel Mustafa Mokrani (Adel Bencherif) to investigate the true nature of the aliens, and also to search for her own sister Sophia (Emilie de Preissac) who went missing while trying to reach Catherine’s radio telescope observatory when the alien attack commenced.
Most of the running time of the series involves a lot of walking backwards and forwards through alpine forests or deserted city streets, the empty roads strewn with abandoned cars and discretely arranged dead bodies (but not too many at a time) all rather reminiscent of early seasons of The Walking Dead or the BBC post-apocalyptic drama Survivors. It does mean that it’s all perhaps a bit too near the knuckle for viewer comfort given the current real life coronavirus pandemic situation, which blew up even as the series was receiving its premiere run on the Fox channel in the UK and Epix in the US.
The characters stop every now and then for a deep existential discussion about what’s happened and various relationship aspects of their lives. It’s all very restrained and low-key, veering toward the humourless and portentous. The quintessentially French sensibility makes it not unlike other European genre efforts such as The Revenants. That’s not necessarily a criticism, as it does gives the whole alien invasion trope a fresh flavour to what you would expect from the usual all-action American interpretation.
But it is slow. It seems almost reluctant to address the matter of traditional plot or to advance the narrative, when it much prefer to sit around and discuss everyone’s feelings instead. Mercifully the episodes are punctuated by occasional fire fights that shake things up as the various groups come under fire from unseen assailants, both human and other – the latter in the form of dog-like mechanoid creatures with machine guns in place of snouts. Given that they’re the product of an advanced alien species it’s amazing how clunky they are – we’ve seen more advanced prototypes of ground-based delivery drones from Amazon. You’d certainly think that a race that has successfully achieved interplanetary space travel would know how to build mechamutts with silent motor servos and gears, or at least invent something comparable to WD40 to keep the noise down.
The biggest failing of these metal hounds is that they’re simply not frightening once they’re fully revealed mid-season. They’re surprisingly easily eliminated by conventional gunfire and generally present little threat. They’re certainly no substitute for the towering tripods that have been a trademark of The War of the Worlds story in all its previous versions, ever since the original novel gave such a compelling description of the Martian travel machines. It’s a weakness that the new production never successfully overcomes, with the action sequences rarely lasting long enough to be truly effective and doing little to puncture the growing sense of frustration at the general inertia as the episodes tick by.
But every now and then, the script remembers to tease out elements of mystery, such as the connection between Sacha and Emily. Emily is blind, but seems to recover a version of sight whenever the alien dog soldiers are nearby; she and Sacha can both actually hear the aliens’ throbbing pulse that is silent to everyone else. Catherine uses scientific instruments to follow the same signal to the scene of a crash site where one of the alien craft spectacular failed to make safe landing and punched a crater into the hillside instead. Bill meanwhile gets his hands on one of the mechanical mongrels and starts to deconstruct it, finding organic material which seems to share human DNA. And why are the metallic monsters seeking out and abducting human babies from hospitals?
These elements do just enough to keep you wanting to watch the next episode, while the lengthy dialogue scenes where characters share their life histories might be painfully slow at points but they do enable us to get to know the people involved in a more realistic and three dimensional way than you’d normally get from a straightforward US action-adventure show. All in all, if you have the patience and a spare eight hours on hand (and under the COVID-19 lockdown, who doesn’t?) then it’s a decent enough way to pass the time.
However towards the end of the first series, you start to realise that there is no way the show is going to get to anything like a resolution. Indeed, the final episode is effectively a treasure hunt through London leading to a dramatic final scene discovery which is practically begging the higher-up television executives to give the show a second season to come up with an explanation for everything that is happening. I suspect most viewers will simply roll their eyes at the big reveal and decide that enough is enough, and will jump ship even if a second series is commission – which frankly looks not all that likely.
And yet for all its faults, we can certainly say this about 2020’s War of the Worlds: it’s a heck of a lot better than 2019’s.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
War of the Worlds was broadcast in the UK on the FX channel concluding on April 16 2020, and is currently available on catch-up. No DVD of Blu-ray home media release has currently been announced as of time of writing.