It is broadcasting legend that the 1938 radio adaption of H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds caused widespread panic when listeners were on the receiving end of the talents of a young Orson Welles. However, it is unlikely that the BBC’s 2019 mini-series will have caused any panic with its gentile approach to the subject of Martian invasion.
Unlike the 1953 film or the 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle, the BBC’s adaptation is faithful to the source text in terms of setting and characters. We begin in Edwardian England with George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Elanor Tomlinson), an outcast couple struggling against an oppressive society. Their own issues are quickly overshadowed by the arrival of objects from space.
Rarely are scenes from director Craig Viveiros filled with a sense of anticipation or dread, the objects, land and the Martians move on to scourging the earth without a great deal of build-up. There is a strange pacing to events at disjointed locations with characters we don’t really get to know or fear for before they’re dispatched.
The lack of dread isn’t helped by some of the CGI, in particular, a scene on Tower Bridge is quite jarring and shoddy, rendering it distracting. Some of the effects are passable but when the Martians do eventually appear on screen they are considerably uninspiring.
It’s unsurprising to see Peter Harness credited as a writer; it all has an air of Doctor Who about it. Throw in Jodie Whittaker saving the day in her blue police box and it wouldn’t look out of place. Viveiros has made clear efforts to update this much-trodden narrative by focusing the story on the role of women and bringing in an environmental theme. Tomlinson, of Poldark fame, is a strong lead as Amy who protects and guides the whimpering George who is similarly well depicted by Spall.
In reality, both leads and the supporting cast, which includes Robert Carlyle and Harry Potter star Harry Melling, struggle with a disjointed and fractured narrative. What’s more, the climax of the series tips the writing over into the absurd. As a series, The War of the Worlds seems like an opportunity wasted, a strong cast squandered on Doctor Who quality CGI and writing. In the era of Netflix and Amazon, it’s fair to say viewers expected more here.
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