No one would have believed in the last months of 2019 that two episodic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds could be released onto the world’s televisions screens. One, a period-accurate adaptation from the BBC, landed with as much fanfare as a meteorite landing on Horsell Common and was almost as well-received. The other, a bilingual co-production from Fox and Canal+ set in the present day, crept out to little notice due to its awkwardly staggered release pattern across France and the US, eventually reaching the UK in March of 2020.
Will the invasion of La Guerre des Mondes, to distinguish it with the French title, be more successful or will it be “slain as the red weed was being slain”?
The first thing to understand about La Guerre des Mondes is that, unlike the BBC’s attempt to adapt the original book relatively faithfully, it’s unashamedly “inspired by” War of the Worlds. And those scare quotes are working overtime. Invaders do come from outer space, albeit the star system of Ross 128 instead of Mars, and they do have the apparent intent to harvest humanity for their own ends. Yet, right from the beginning, the series deviates in small-but-increasing ways from the source text. Rather than the almost-casual assault on Earth that Wells outlines, the aliens of La Guerre des Mondes use a massive EMP burst to fatally overload the central nervous system of any human being not underground, underwater or shielded in a metal vessel. The majority of humans are killed immediately.
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The second thing to understand is that from here on in the narrative becomes further inspired by a whole slew of classic sci-fi/horror works. As the few survivors of the initial attack emerge from their hiding places in London or Paris, now strewn with wreckage and corpses, it’s hard not to think of 28 Days Later or, perhaps more accurately, Day of the Triffids. The sinister reveal of the alien machines that begin to hunt down the survivors, their true nature initially hidden, has call-backs to the unhurried implacability of The Terminator, the vampiric savagery of Aliens.
The final thing to understand is that La Guerre des Mondes is bleak. Almost ceaselessly bleak. Bleaker even than Spielberg’s surprisingly dark 2005 film adaptation, which starts with the population of New Jersey being disintegrated and goes downhill from there. No character, even the most sympathetic, feels at any point safe from the hypersonic projectiles of the ever-present alien machines. Nor, indeed, from each other.
The ensemble cast, led by Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern as estranged couple Bill and Helen, play this subtly; we learn of their fear and fatigue by their reactions to atrocities glimpsed just off-camera more than we do from the dialogue. The colour in the face of Sarah Gresham (Natalie Little) slowly drains away as worry for her children – Emily (Daisy Edgar-Johns) and Tom (Ty Tennant) – takes its toll. Léa Drucker, playing the French astronomer who first discovered the aliens’ approach, struggles with the guilt of how she treated her younger sister but also the hand she may have had in attracting the invasion. As much as I enjoyed how this human element was presented it does lead to one of the series’ potential flaws; there are bursts of frantic action and a number of startling set-pieces but it is largely very slow. Achingly slow at points. The number of main characters, all with hidden secrets and weaknesses, means that a lot of the time is taken explaining their relationships, and developing new relationships between characters. There is also a lot of staring at – admittedly haunting – empty skylines and slo-mo montages soundtracked by David Martijn’s – admittedly beautiful – score.
This largely isn’t a problem for me as I think that traumatic events like these must often feel slow – bursts of chaos and terror, yes, but also long hours of silence and dread that seem to stretch forever – but it does let the mind ponder the plot more fully, which is often a problem for sci-fi. If the aliens are here to harvest humans, as they appear to be, then why kill most of them in such a devastating initial attack? Why do certain people seem invisible to the killings machines? Why use machines that seem woefully inadequate to harvest certain victims?
These are, however, questions that the series finale hints at and an in-production second series may answer.
Ultimately, though, La Guerre des Mondes works because, like the best sci-fi, it feels uncannily timely. Wells’ War of the Worlds considers the perils of both Social Darwinism – the Martians, valuing intellectual prowess at the expense of physical resistance and considering themselves superior to Earthly life, underestimate the bacteria that eventually destroy them – and of imperialism; the Well’s narrator tells us that “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years”.
War of the Worlds was serialised in 1897 and released as a hardback in 1898. Three years later Queen Victoria would be dead and the British Empire – founded on these imperialist notions of inherent racial and social superiority – would begin its slow collapse.
Series creator Howard Overman may not have intended such prophetic resonance, no more than Wells intended his country’s collapse, for his work. Yet watching a series where gaunt-faced and frightened people walk near-empty streets, reminders of their potential death at every turn, in a time of COVID-19 isolation is almost too near the knuckle, almost too much. Almost, not quite.
La Guerre des Mondes won’t be for everyone but rarely has a piece of science fiction held me so terrified, so captivated at what it might inadvertently predict.