The entertainment landscape is not exactly hurting for adaptations of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion novel War of the Worlds. We’ve got em’, from the 1938 radio drama that basically pranked the world into a panic, to Steven Spielberg‘s underrated 2005 take that saw Tom Cruise sprinting through the apocalypse. It’s a great story, and every era of human life has been linked with our general existential fear about our place in the universe. But the basic bones of Wells’ tale have also mostly been kept the same through every adaptation: Extraterrestrial life arrives on Earth in their towering three-legged fighting machines, utterly effs humanity’s day up, and are eventually defeated by the planet’s invisible pathogens. This is what makes the latest adaptation from Howard Overman—it debuted in France and now makes its way to the U.S. via Epix—an intriguing watch, if not always an entertaining one. Overman takes the grand sci-fi tale down to the most human level possible, trading set pieces and laser beams for a quiet contemplation of what happens after we get shot down the food chain.
Of course, this is War of the Worlds so the world still has to end, and it does here not with an explosion but with a signal. Astronomer Catherine Durand (Léa Drucker) of the I.R.A.M. Observatory in the French alps discovers a distinctly extraterrestrial wavelength approaching from the cosmos, but it’s former neuroscientist Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne) who realizes its nefarious purpose. The signal emits electromagnetic pulses identical to the ones that trigger reactions the human brain; in the blink of an eye, the aliens crank their pulses and the streets are littered with corpses. Anyone left alive then has to wade through the wreckage, avoiding the dog-like robots that have been sent down to pick off the stragglers.
The design of those genuinely freaky, four-legged mecha-dogs actually works to enforce one of the series’ more potent themes. It’s impossible to ignore the similarity to the ruthless machines in the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead”, but they also look a heck of a lot like the robots that scientists are building right now, in real life, the ones we watch on Youtube, low-key terrified, learning to jump and run. It’s a subtle way to ask one of the bigger questions in War of the Worlds: Did humanity kind of, sort of bring this on themselves? In this story, the answer is almost literally yes, in the sense that the extraterrestrials found us thanks to some music we beamed into the stars. (The exact song is “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the genuinely hilarious implication that aliens just really freaking hate Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds did cross my mind.) But the show plays with the idea in less obvious ways by suggesting mankind’s capacity for cruelty. Soldiers spend the majority of the show fleeing helpless and terrified from the weaponized dog-bots, but the second they manage to corner one they start to mock it, kicking the machine while it struggles to stay upright on damaged legs.
But really, the show is often only passively interested in the invasion itself. Through the five episodes I screened, the show morphs into a sci-fi version of The Walking Dead—your mileage may vary on whether that’s a positive or a negative—in the sense that the monstrous inciting incident is an excuse to tell individual human stories. A mother named Sarah Gresham (Sarah Gresham) tries to stay strong for her young son Tom (Ty Tennant) and blind daughter Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones). Byrne’s Ward attempts to track down his missing son with his ex-wife, Helen (Elizabeth McGovern). A criminal, Kariem (Bayo Gbadamosi), only alive because of a robbery gone wrong, tries for a second chance in the end-times.
The performances are wonderful—Edgar-Jones, in particular, is great, especially as Emily deals with a strange connection to the alien signal—but the show brings these characters together at a glacial pace. I cannot stress enough how subdued this adaptation is, and when it’s not exactly working it’s drier than asphalt with a grey color palette to match. There’s nothing wrong with quiet contemplation, and the various avenues through which War of the Worlds deals with trauma are often heartwrenching, but there’s also a difference between exploring grief and stewing in it.
The benefit of all that quiet, though, is that it does amplify the bigger moments. I’m not sure how long you’ll stick around, but the premiere episode is a must-watch for the sheer panic-attack hysteria of the invasion itself. It’s a rapid-cut, sweat-inducing freakout on a large scale pulled off to perfection by director Gilles Coulier. From that point on, War of the Worlds’ horror elements are much smaller, but equally effective. You don’t see the robot dogs in full until deep into the series; mostly it’s mechanical clanks from around a shadowy corner or a quick flash above a roof-top. (The machines also have a retractable cattle gun-esque rod that extends from its “face”, which I choose to believe is a shout-out to Alien.)
Overall, this take on War of the Worlds isn’t the most heart-pumping but it does take the material to places it’s never been. That “war” between worlds has always been more like a slaughter. Overman’s version of the story is less about fighting back against an enemy than it is just trying to salvage something worth saving from the wreckage.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
War of the Worlds premieres on Epix on Sunday, February 16.