UK TV review: The War of the Worlds (2019)
James R | On 17, Nov 2019
This contains minor spoilers for the set-up of The War of the Worlds.
“Our cannons are the best in the world!” declares government official Frederick (Rupert Graves) as the UK prepares to go to war against a far more powerful force. It’s an act of foolish faith in a nation’s superiority to foreign civilisations, denial in the face of a changing world, and inevitably paves the way for a disastrous alien invasion – you don’t need to have read The War of the Worlds to know that things don’t go well for the humans at the start.
Often, those humans have been Americans when watching the story on screen, but BBC One’s lavish new adaptation returns us to the Edwardian England of HG Wells’ original novel, and that decision brings with it all the pathos and hubris of the British Empire – a force that had spent years colonising other countries in a manner not dissimilar to the Martians that form the major threat in this seminal sci-fi.
George (Rafe Spall), a journalist and the brother of Frederick, acknowledges the uncomfortable parallels briefly during the extra-terrestrial siege, to the flabbergasted bewilderment of his sibling. That’s the most explicit nod to Wells’ initial text, but what’s striking about the Beeb’s new take on the tale is how unfamiliar much of it feels: the series pushes its dramatic licence as far as it can.
That becomes clear from the off, as Wells’ iconic opening narration is voiced not by George or an unnamed male narrator, but by Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson). George’s partner, an outcast for reasons that gradually become clear (and are drawn from Wells’ own life), effectively becomes the main hero of the piece, standing up and standing out against her perilous surroundings with a determination that’s immediately endearing. Tomlinson brings every ounce of charisma she displayed in Poldark, often stealing scenes from Rafe Spall’s similarly likeable George. Together, they make a couple worth cheering on, a pair who bond together against this unknown enemy.
That fear of the unknown infects every inch of the frame, with director Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) giving things a chilling blue/green pallor, before plunging the world into red tints for a nightmarish tease of what the future might look like. The expensive production design only reinforces the tangible creepiness of the strange creatures, from the eerie, reflective spheres that fall from the sky to the fiery chaos and multi-limbed destruction that ensues. All of it is anchored seamlessly in actual locations to give things a realistic period vibe, to the point where you’d happily watch more of the opening episode’s scene-setting just to enjoy the world and our couple’s back-story.
Peter Harness’ script paces the escalating horror carefully across three episodes, and moves around within that framework with claustrophobia and creativity. Robert Carlyle’s astronomer Ogilvy (also an outsider) gets a new side to him, as he becomes a partner in crime for Amy, and their scientific calculations and keen desire to learn more underpin the compelling story of resilience and survival. Survival, we’re warned, is built on sacrifice, and Viveiros repeatedly cuts away to granular glimpses of insects scurrying about our planet, tying the whole thing back to Wells’ introduction and the dog-eat-dog nature of an environment that we’ve made our own.
In the collision of our world and the Martians’ world, this 1904-set story finds modern resonances, as Harness dwells on the consequences of a dramatically different climate and questions the kind of civilisation where people don’t listen to science. And, underneath it all, the human drive to keep going under any circumstances endures, along with an appreciation of remembering our own history and learning from it. Like the best sci-fi, all of these layers don’t have to be there if you don’t want them, and on a visceral level of Martians invading Earth, this war is a thrilling, unsettling ride, but this ambitious update finds a fresh new fear in the familiar – the odds on managing that? Well, they could have been a million to one.
The War of the Worlds is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.