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‘The War of the Worlds’ review: a slow, dim-witted take on a British sci-fi classic

*Spoilers for episode one below*

It’d be slightly over the top to say that The War of the Worlds is one of the most important stories in British history, but you can’t deny the impact its had on sci-fi. It’s the seminal alien invasion tale and H. G. Wells practically defined the genre with his book, before contemporary films like Independence Day took inspiration from his terrifying, technologically superior Martians that invaded Victorian England.

It’s a wonder then, that The War of the Worlds has been so scarcely adapted. Obviously, the most famous recent example was Steven Spielberg’s Tom Cruise-starring adaptation in 2005, which swapped out the traditional Victorian backdrop for modern-day Boston. But apart from that, we’ve not seen the monstrous robotic ‘Tripods’ on-screen this century. Luckily, the BBC has stepped in with a new three-part adaptation — albeit with its own minor tweaks. 

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Set around the turn of the 20th Century, eccentric scientist Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle) watches through his telescope as an array of explosions torch the surface of Mars. He writes the event off as nothing more than volcanic eruptions — big ones, but volcanic eruptions none-the-less. 

At the same time, we’re introduced to adventurous lovebirds Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) and George (Rafe Spall), the latter of whom is married to another woman who refuses to annul. George, a journalist, is ostracised at work because of this – he still writes material for the local paper, but his bylines are credited to a colleague.

Episode one opens – like Spielberg’s version before it and Jeff Waynes’ famous musical adaptation, which you might’ve heard from the back seat of your dad’s car — with a monologue taken verbatim from the first paragraph of Wells’ book (yeah, the famous one). It’s narrated by Amy, establishing her as our lead. And, indeed, one of the strongest aspects of the episode is Tomlinson’s performance. 

Her character is the most interesting of the lot: a woman defying the rigid gender roles of Victorian England to work in science. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the written ensemble lets the side down. Carlyle’s performance, for example, is admirable, but his role leans quite boringly into the ‘mad scientist’ trope. He’s essentially Doc Brown from Back to the Future, without the mad, curly hair. Almost every character is likeable, but the cliche-stuffed script might spoil your enjoyment of them.

From cheesy dialogue to stilted drama, everything in The War of the Worlds feels a bit ham-fisted. Far too reliant on exposition to feel authentic or interesting, this is a far lesser addition to the Beeb’s family drama catalogue. Not to suggest that exposition always leads to poor narrative framework, but it does make everything feel very contrived. Like the Tripods, which descend from space to wreak havoc on Britain’s quaint hamlets, villages and towns, everything feels awfully mechanical.

War of the Worlds
Rafe Spall and Eleanor Tomlinson in ‘The War of the Worlds’. Credit: BBC

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In fairness, it looks great and the show’s pricey special effects wouldn’t look out of place in a big Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, quality design acumen only goes so far. In another example of the script’s cliche-laden lack of subtlety, the first shot of a Tripod sees one of the machines towering over a church. A church it promptly destroys. Where’s your God now, humans? It’s one of many tedious shot choices on the part of director Craig Viveiros, who seems determined to make sure his audience ‘gets’ what’s going on. 

It’s a shame, because there are some good moments here: Tomlinson’s performance, the occasionally funny one-liner, brilliant set-pieces. But of all the stories that need their key ideas clarifying, The War of the Worlds isn’t one of them: it’s literally in the title.

In a post-show Q&A at the special preview we attended, Viveiros and Tomlinson spoke highly of the latter episodes in the three-parter. If you’ve seen Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds, you’ll know that the second act leans into character-driven horror – a story turn that the duo (basically) confirmed for the next part. It could be very successful if the show’s writing is more refined moving forward, and Eleanor Tomlinson might just carry it home. But it might be best to go into the next one with lowered expectations.

‘The War of the Worlds’ airs on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday’s

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