by David Cornelius
So here’s a direct-to-video effort from Asylum Home Entertainment, the distributors of such low-grade works as “Death Valley: The Revenge of Bloody Bill” and “Jolly Roger: Massacre At Cutter’s Cove;” starring C.Thomas Howell, whose career has been swimming in B movie territory for far too long now; rushed through production in order to beat the release date of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster that’s adapting the same story; featuring DVD cover art that cheaply duplicates the familiar image from “Independence Day,” with the Capitol Dome standing in for the White House. By all accounts, this should be a major dud.All accounts are wrong. “H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds” is one of two adaptations of the 1898 sci-fi classic that’s getting pushed onto home video just days before the big budget Spielberg/Cruise version arrives in theaters. This sort of thing happens all the time, although rarely so quickly, rarely with this much competition, and rarely, it turns out, with this much quality. (The last time a “rip-off” movie turned out to be so solid was the 1991 made-for-TV “Robin Hood,” which outshone the Kevin Costner event film.)
"Far, far better than it should have been."
For this edition, director/co-writer/B movie vet David Michael Latt modernizes the story, keeping key plot points of Wells’ novel but drawing everything else from scratch. Here, cleverly named astronomer George Herbert (Howell) is planning a family trip to Washington when he sees a strange meteorite land nearby. We all know that’s no meteorite, of course, and pretty soon, townsfolk are getting good and zapped. Chaos, as it has a tendency of doing, ensues. So begins George’s long journey to reunite with his wife and son at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (played as a usable point of reference for the characters, but it’s really here to promise viewers that by the end, we’re sure to see at east one quick glimpse of D.C. in glorious ruin.)
By its very low budget nature, this “War” is not without its problems. Most obviously, the CGI used to create the Martian invasion is - how to put this nicely - uneven. Fortunately, the story zips along so briskly that one doesn’t mind the cheap look to things. That said, many renters may scoff at the cartoony look of the thing. (To be fair, there are some shots here that rise above the rest; the final computer composite image of D.C. does come across as nicely convincing.)
More problematic is the smallness of scale. In order to work around budgetary issues, Latt, as so many B movie creators have before him, put plenty of limits on the story. Much of what happens in terms of a worldwide invasion occurs off screen, mentioned only in brief dialogue, left mainly to the viewer’s imagination. Again, renters may scoff; they come in expecting mass destruction, and leave having seen only Howell very rarely encountering the aliens.
But here’s where Latt gets things right. He never tries to fake it. Latt knows his limits and instead of becoming hindered by them, he uses them to his advantage, delivering a “War” that’s presented with far more intimacy than previous adaptations. In Latt’s retelling, the story isn’t about the big picture, but the small one: we follow George as he becomes cut off from the world, wandering across a post-apocalyptic eastern U.S., piecing together big picture events from the bits of fact and rumor strangers can offer.
Which is exactly what would happen in such an event. With communications cut and electricity unavailable, George’s world becomes one of bedlam. I’m reminded of that earlier Howell film, “Red Dawn;” in early scenes following the Russian invasion, the town is in a mass panic, confusion reigning supreme. In “War,” it’s the same thing. And it works. (Above all, there’s a post-nuclear vibe here, with scenes reminding me of “The Day After” and others. Latt smartly covers his imitations by paying up the apocalypse angle, to great effect.)
Knowing that the CGI thrills must be dished out on a limited basis, Latt depends on intricately developed characters and finely tuned performances to carry us through. These are two things we rarely get in a direct-to-video effort, so imagine my surprise when we wind up getting both. Howell is quite impressive, especially in the later scenes in which his character begins to lose his grip on sanity. More noteworthy, however, are Andrew Lauer, playing a kindhearted lieutenant, and Rhett Giles, appearing here as a pastor who begins to question his faith.
The pastor, it turns out, is the film’s most compelling character, an excuse for the film to delve into deeper concerns. Everyone here is questioning their faith - not just in a supreme being, but faith in general. (Does George really know his family will wait for him?) The scenes with the pastor are grim but endlessly engaging.
Another sign of the film’s surprising level of smarts comes with the finale. Those familiar with the book will recall how nifty the ending is - on paper. On film, however, the deus ex machina of it all causes way too many hiccups. Latt works to fix this problem, giving us some clever doses of foreshadowing and a few side actions by George that, while not solving the problem completely, make the ending seem less like an out-of-nowhere left turn. Here’s a filmmaker who’s put a lot of thought into his adaptation, something that gets us to forget that this is merely some B cheapie.
And yet it is a B cheapie, eager to thrill, so in between the deep introspection and intelligent writing, we get gratuitous nudity, a few nail-biting suspense scenes, and some good doses of blood and guts. Comes with the territory, I suppose. But while all of this is gratuitous, it’s never all that off-putting, and overall, the movie comes across as one that’s loaded with something, as they say, for everyone.Sure, there’s plenty of cheese, and not everything clicks as well as it could have. But as far as pulp cheapies go, this one’s a delightful surprise. Witty, thrilling, quite intelligent, far more interested in telling a damn fine story than simply tossing cheap thrills at the viewer… this is what separates the good B films from the crap. Latt’s “War” may be no Spielbergian masterwork, but it does go to show us just how good low budget pictures can be, if only somebody puts the right amount of care into the effort.
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originally posted: 06/29/05 02:19:49