Monday, July 11, 2005

War is Hell

Anthony Piana entertains co-star Susan Goforth with his Snub Pollard impression. Believe it or not, this is a night scene.

It has always struck me as extremely strange that a novel as cinematic and iconic as The War of the Worlds had only been filmed once, and in a manner designed to drain it of any significance (or, at least, the significance Wells intended it to have). Well, now we have two more versions and, frankly, the novel still has yet to be committed to film. Steven Spielberg respectfully ignores the source material while, at the other end of the spectrum, Anthony Hines films the novel without respect or understanding. Heaven knows I wanted to like this. I've been eagerly awaiting Hines' authentic period version of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds for about three years now, ever since Pendragon Pictures decided to drop their original intention to stage the story in the present day and shoot the 1898 novel instead. PP claims this decision was made in the wake of 9/11, fearing a modern day alien invasion story would be in poor taste in a post-9/11 world. This is, of course, a bunch of crap. It's more likely that the decision was made after it became clear that Spielberg's version would be set in the here and now and PP felt that going head to head directly with Spielberg would invite unfavorable comparisons. It didn't bode well that the decision to film the novel was Pendragon Pictures' "Plan B", but I held out hope. Pendragon Pictures then announced that while they wouldn't be able to cast "names", they would be casting actors with "Shakespearian" training. Sounded good, especially as I was laboring under the assumption that this was being shot in the UK where it wouldn't have been too unlikely to hire a moonlighting member of the Royal Shakespeare Company without busting your budget (and where you can't throw a rock without hitting photogenic scenery). And then came the surprising news that "The Little Guy" had won; Pendragon had filmed WOTW in secret (why?) and it was now complete, beating Spielberg's version to, well, DVD. PP's spit and bailing wire website announced a theatrical release date which came and went before they announced that it would appear on DVD and at "select theaters". That didn't bode well either, but the price at was right ($10.49) and my curiosity was peaked so I plunked down my cash.

Pendragon's clunky tagline for H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is "The first authentic movie adaptation of the 1898 H.G. Wells classic novel" and, after a fashion, this is true. But I could film a dozen ten year olds beating the hell out of a tripod-shaped pinata and claim authenticity as long as they recite a few lines from the book. Having sat through every last one of the berserk and unwarranted 180 MINUTES of Hines' "film" (or, rather, digital video with obnoxious, eye-damaging shutter-frame), it is now clear that the authenticity claim is virtually the only thing Hines has to hang his hat on.

As it turns out, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was shot in Seattle, not the UK, and I find about as much Shakespearian training in evidence as I do authentic Brits. The performances range from good to unbelievably, teeth-gratingly bad, with a emphasis on the latter. The lead, Anthony Piana wearing a patently phoney Snub Pollard-ish mustache, is good in his dual role as The Writer and The Writer's Brother, and Jack Clay turns the rather thankless role of Ogilvy, the Astronomer and Well-Known Martian Victim, into a charming and all too brief gem. John Kaufman's performance as the crazed Curate indicates a serious lack of rehearsal but is far from the embarrassment that most of the performances are. James Lathrop gives the Artilleryman a truly bizarre Scots/Cockney/Hungarian/Texan twang which renders a lot of his dialogue unintelligible. The woman who plays Mrs. Elphinstone's sister-in-law keeps her lips firmly puckered at all times, giving her an Elmer Fudd-like lisp. And co-screenwriter and producer Susan Goforth wins the Loretta King Award for shamelessly giving herself the plum role of The Writer's Wife when it should have been apparent that she couldn't act. Goforth twitches and fumbles her way through the first twenty minutes of the movie, delivering lines that she doesn't seem to comprehend and acting far more alien than the CGI Martians do. Other showy roles are essayed by people who affect English accents by simply dropping the H's from their dialogue. This is amusing in a bad way for about forty minutes. Past that, it's an endurance contest.

It's needless to relate the story here. Suffice to say that the book is in there, more or less, but with most of Wells' crucial subtext removed or ignored, seemingly by design in some scenes and often due to overeagerness and a lack of respect for the intelligence of the audience. For some reason, Hines' got cold feet over the scene where the Writer murders the hysterical Curate, atheist Wells' poster child for the weaknesses of dogma, in order to prevent his being discovered by the Martians. Hines lets the Curate survive the beating only long enough to allow the Martians to kill him, saving the Writer from the moral consequences of his actions (or, rather, preventing the audience from judging his actions) and also letting the air out of a scene written to show the lengths civilized people will go in order to ensure their personal survival. Hines refuses to even show the weapon the Writer used (the butt end of a meat chopper in the novel). Later, screenwriters Hines and Goforth gut the Artilleryman's grandiose (and social Darwinist) speech about his plans for human survival under the Martians and then arbitrarily drop the scene in which the Writer abandons the Artilleryman after he realizes he's more content to play cards and drink champagne than work. It's one of the most important and telling chapters in the book and Hines jettisoned it, a decision made even more perverse in light of the fact that he pads out the film elsewhere beyond reason with endless scenes of the Writer, or the Artilleryman, or the Writer and the Artilleryman, or sometimes the Curate and the Writer, wandering aimlessly around fields in Washington. Sure, people did walk more in the 19th Century, but the beauty of film (or digital video posing as film) is that it can be edited. Hines' WOTW would lose almost an hour without those scenes.

What's so frustrating about H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is that, although the novel is tailor-made for film treatment, Hines habitually sabotages those elements of the book most suitable for film. In an overzealous fit, for instance, he reveals the first Martian tripods about twelve times in cutaway shots before finally revealing them in full, killing, with one blow, both the suspense and surprise in what should have been a surefire scene if simply filmed as written. "Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground?" asks Wells' narrator in the novel, describing the tripods. Clearly the CGI modelers and animators couldn't. "Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body." This isn't what Hines delivers in the slightest, and that's a let-down because there's a lot of footage (arguably too much) of the tripods. They're a clear holdover from Pendragon's planned modern-day version of the book. Sleek and bug-like, with four stiff mechanical tentacles (usually held aloft because it would have taken more time to animate them as described in the novel), the tripods are also wildly overdesigned in the manner of a comic book artist eagerly trying to display his or her craft. Compare these to Spielberg's version or even the un-Wells-like but effectively eerie.. and simple.. manta ray machines from the George Pal movie. Frankly, I'm a strong believer in integrated production design. If I were to suddenly shift gears and set my movie in Edwardian England rather than present day New York City, I'd feel obligated to ditch what I had and come up with completely new tripod designs, perhaps something with an appropriately steampunk feel to it. But that's just me. On a side note, the Martian tripods in Hines' movie also display a propensity for deliberately stepping on young women, resulting in bathtubs worth of CGI blood. It's very silly and wholly uncharacteristic for Wells' impersonal war machines.

The Heat Ray, another one of Wells' surefire cinematic conceits, also goes AWOL. The Martians don't use a heat ray here, despite what the characters may call it. The CGI crew felt it would be more interesting if the Martians used a device that creates a kind of general "heat malaise" throughout the air. This weapon can cause its victims to burn, vaporize, explode, or skeletonize, depending on the whims of the animator. When we first see it in use, the victims' skeletons continue to writhe on the ground for some time. I'm not sure what that's about. The Martian's other WMD, the Black Smoke, is almost completely absent, probably because of the inability of the CGI crew to animate it. What little Black Smoke we see emerges from the tips of a tripod's metal tentacles rather than from the novel's capsule shot from a gun. The tripod goes out of its way to kill a small throng with the stuff rather than use it to wipe out entire villages, as in the novel. Maybe it was just bored.

The Martians, unlike the tripods, are well designed and faithful to Wells' description. Unfortunately, they are hardly the book's sluggish fish out of water. They dart about nimbly, making liars of most of the characters who describe them and weakening the point behind their reliance on machinery. In the novel, the Martians are vampires who have evolved sharp proboscises to drain the blood from the frail, humanoid creatures which are their native cuisine. This makes humans an obvious substitute. But Wells' creative musings on evolution are weakened when Hines' Martians use technology to suck their victims dry (and I mean completely). They even seem to toy with one woman before draining her body, making their feeding habits seem unnecessarily cruel rather than a simple biological function. In all, it indicates a serious misunderstanding of the central thrust of Wells novel which is, after all, a creative extrapolation of evolutionary theory. Wells' Martians impassively and calculatedly take advantage of an evolutionary gap in the Earth's chain of life only to find themselves fall victim to Earthly bacteria which, naturally, take advantage of the Martian's own evolutionary weakness. Hines' repeatedly portrays the Martians as cruel and vindictive sci-fi baddies rather than cold opportunists, hurting Wells' point and making the Martians far less frightening in the process.

Overall, the film's look is the insult following the injury. If all of Pendragon's cut-rate production techniques were backed up by believable performances, perhaps this wouldn't have mattered quite as much as it does. There's no reason whatsoever why all of the endless Premiere filters and chromakey footage and cheap sub-video game CGI on display in WOTW couldn't be put to good use. But their clumsy mishandling just makes everything that much worse. It's difficult enough to suspend disbelief with the kinds of performances we're treated to here. It becomes impossible thanks to the poorly handled CGI and composite video images that litter 98% of the film. Every now and again, these strangely unreal composite images seem on the verge of coalescing into a style unto themselves, rather like the films of Karel Zeman or a Max Ernst collage, but all of that is wrecked when the same bit of bad animation is recycled for the umpteenth time, or when the chromakeyed footage is sandwiched together without care resulting in shots of people standing in front of walls of water or background footage that's completely out of scale for the actors standing in front of it. It's just artless bungling at that point. The chromakey compositing, the editing, and the CGI all completely collapse during the interminable Thunder Child/ Tripods v. Battleships sequence. Scale and perspective go out the window as poorly designed CGI boats glide about sideways over video footage of a lake. The action is nearly impossible to follow. One of the book's climactic moments (Britain's, and thus the world's, most advanced weaponry is shown conclusively useless in this battle) is a total abortion in Hines' film. And, again, the scene seems to last an eternity.

As it turned out, Pendragon amply proved a rule of thumb of independent filmmaking; if you can't afford to show it, don't show it. But Hines holds nothing back. Everything is shown. Nothing is implied. It's as if Hines couldn't bear to cut corners or scale back what he wanted onscreen, so he used every effect he could, no matter how crummy or unconvincing, to achieve some semblance of what he had in his head. This useless tail chasing only serves to further destroy whatever intentions he might have had and the results would tax the patience of a saint. And the truly sad part is that even if Hines had ILM-grade effects, genuine English settings, and performers from the Royal Shakespeare Company, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds would still be an extremely bad movie. The screenplay, direction, and editing are all sub-par, and those are things that only talent, not money, could help.

At the end of the credits (even the credits seem run on forever), there's a little tag inviting the audience to see Pendragon Pictures' next film, Chrome. Now that's chutzpah.


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