Monday 5 August 2013

War of the Worlds: The True Story (2012)

Director: Timothy Hines
Stars: Floyd Reichman, Susan Goforth, Jack Clay and John Kaufmann

For a whole bunch of different reasons, War of the Worlds: The True Story, the latest in a long line of adaptations of the seminal H G Wells novel, is one of the most fascinating cinematic experiences I've encountered. Most obviously that's because of the techniques used to adapt the source material, but the context makes those even more interesting. Many filmmakers take old stories and turn them into new ones, not least Steven Spielberg, who reworked this very story in 2005 into something that takes place in the modern day with a recognisable star and a gigantic dollop of CGI. Director Timothy Hines, however, got a lot more imaginative in how he approached this film. He kept the story extremely old fashioned, with most of what we hear transcribed verbatim from the book and structured around the original chapter headings, but he told it in very modern ways. This therefore becomes of interest to a rather odd mixture of Victorian science fiction buffs, film restorers and teenage ADHD sufferers.

Analysing what he did makes it all the more surprising that it works for the most part. For instance, he clearly went back three quarters of a century to the infamous and innovative 1938 radio adaptation by the Mercury Theatre, which Orson Welles cleverly phrased as a progression of news bulletins and, in doing so, infamously conned a great number of listeners into believing aliens were actually invading. Accounts of mass panic have passed into our cultural fabric but they were actually less apparent than our need to believe in it. As if recognising that, Hines takes further, much more modern steps. One is into conspiracy territory by telling us that it already happened, exactly as Wells wrote it, but was then suppressed by the government. Another is into found footage territory, as he 'discovered' in 2006 the eye witness testimony of the last survivor in film canisters unopened for 41 years, then matched it up with recently declassified combat footage, newspapers and newsreels to feel like a documentary.

How Hines approached effects is similarly counter-intuitive. Rather than follow Spielberg's example and rock out with CGI, he mostly got physical. 'There's nothing that can represent real as well as that which is real,' he says, so his effects team, led by an artist known as Ultrakarl, went back to old school tech like models, puppets and stop motion animation. The Martian we see in the film was a full scale monster that took nineteen technicians to operate. The creature's ear was manipulated by woodwind musicians, its breathing by subdermal bladders blown into arhythmically. Puppeteers controlled hair and tentacle movement. Even sweating was replicated by piping glycerin through skin pores. Tripods, Martian fighting machines, are articulated miniatures animated through stop motion. Yet all this neat old school tech is then integrated with stock and public domain footage in new school mash up style using state of the art restoration techniques. Again, old meets new.
If this sounds like a lot of work, you'd be right, but this is really the end result to what Hines calls a 'fifteen year journey'. Critics hear the word 'journey' a lot and it doesn't usually mean much, but here it's quite clearly about as appropriate as it gets. What Hines and his production partners survived is a cautionary tale that many could learn from. As he tells it, he financed a $42m adaptation back in the early nineties but was railroaded by journalists with agendas. The 9/11 attacks scuttled his projected vision and left him in 'personal financial ruin'. Once he'd recovered, shot a faithful $25m adaptation and was working on post-production in 2004, he discovered that Spielberg was finishing up a version of the story too and Hines wasn't likely to win out against the Hollywood machine. Most upsetting of all, it was released prematurely by an unscrupulous distributor in what Hines called an 'unfinished skeleton of a production', a three hour workprint of a film intended to be cut down to 100 minutes.

It's a tribute to the dedication of Hines and his more honest and loyal partners that War of the Worlds: The True Story was even started, let alone finished and released to critical acclaim. That journey took them down a tough road indeed. I haven't seen the 2005 film, titled H G Wells' The War of the Worlds, but reviews were not kind, putting Hines in the unenviable position of getting consistently worse press than the Asylum mockbuster released in Spielberg's wake. In a clear attempt at damage limitation, he released two further versions, a director's cut in late 2005 which knocked three quarters of an hour off the almost three hour running time and a 'special final cut edit' a year later called The Classic War of the Worlds which pruned it further to just over two hours, with new scenes added, others reedited and many effects reworked. It's tough to delineate reviews between these different versions but they still weren't kind. Trying to pick up those pieces and assemble a worthy movie that stayed true to Wells's original vision is a task perhaps best left to masochists, but Hines stuck it out and it clearly paid off.

What he gives us does require some suspension of disbelief, in a similar way to the Welles radio take, but the rapid fire editing helps on that front. The Mercury Theatre only had an hour to tell its tale, so anyone paying attention could quickly poke holes; real news reports can't provide an accurate count of bodies a mere minute after the beginning of a battle, after all. Similar holes can be poked here; it's a stretch to believe that Hines, having discovered that the Martians really did invade England in 1900, was able to locate declassified film footage to illustrate that fact. Surely the destruction of London, the capital of the world at that time, was far too big for governments to suppress and if they could, it's not likely that they would have left film footage to be declassified decades later at just the right time. The key is whether we find the idea that The War of the Worlds is really a 'seminal alien invasion memoir' delicious enough that we can look past the unavoidable fact that it can't all be translated like that.
For my part, I love that idea enough that it isn't just strawberries, it's strawberries with cream, served during Wimbledon. Most of the footage plays out believably, real war footage including destruction on a scale that even Spielberg can't compete with. I could smile knowingly each time something happens that, even in a best case scenario, Hines couldn't have found footage for. Who was shooting video in the cellar in which Wells was stuck for a couple of days with an insane clergyman? I wonder how many audience members are so attuned to reality TV and the surveillance state that they take the presence of a floating camera for granted, even in 1900. After all, in The War of the Worlds, Wells made a whole slew of predictions that came to pass in his future, from tanks, chemical warfare and laser beams to total war, blitzkrieg attacks and the stubborn creep of alien plantlife. Why not omnipresent cameras too? Sometimes the old classics are as important for what we read into them as for what they say.

And so we watch the journalist Bertie Wells (the 'H' in 'H G' stood for Herbert) recount the adventures we know so well as real life events in interview footage shot in 1965 when he was an old man. 82 year old actor Floyd Reichman does a solid job as Wells, effectively reading sections of the book but in such a way as to bring life to them as memories. He omits much, of course, and jumps back and forth a bit, but generally close to the original material and often exact. Jack Clay is an interesting choice of actor to play Ogilvy, the astronomer who first shows Mars to Wells through a telescope and who later finds the meteor on Horsell Common that gives birth to the first Martian cylinder. While he's an actor with a great deal of experience, this is his debut on screen. Off it, he studied under Lee Strasberg and taught many names we recognise, including Kathy Bates and Stephen Tobolowsky. Once the Martians begin their rampage, though, we don't pay too much attention to the acting. There's too much else to watch.

While press for War of the Worlds: The True Story has been generally positive, often very much so, in stark contrast to its maligned predecessor, some of whose dramatic scenes were cannily repurposed into archive footage here, some criticisms have been raised. I don't buy that the attacks on London by tripods make the film feel long; personally, I felt it rattled along at a solid pace, aided by an amazing three and a half years of editing. To me, it was a short 102 minutes and I wanted more. However, I'm more sympathetic to the suggestion that the techniques on show eclipse the story. That rapid editing does its best to move everything along and wash over us like a visual overdose, but it's likely that this film's viewers are going to have an interest in cinema beyond just the latest blockbuster and it's this audience who are going to be most distracted by the impeccable technical work that went on to make this seem like authentic footage. Watch this and you'll swear that there were tripods in World War I.
I love the old school footage. It's done very well indeed and I expect to watch a few times over just to examine this aspect of the film. Susan Goforth, one of the film's producers who also plays the young Bertie's wife, is an experienced effects tech and she and others have explained in detail some of what was done. After archive footage was carefully selected, it had to be 'stabilized perfectly where effects were combined and then returned to the original shaky and flickery state.' To add to the complexity, 'virtually every shot was reframed, panned to redirect the viewer's focus in service of the story' and 'carefully processed to support the memories Bertie Wells was recounting.' 'Many hundreds of pieces of war footage were split screened or blended into other war footage,' says Hines, 'then composited with heat-ray wielding mechanical alien fighting machines in the same shot.' The depth of how they matched up aging in a whole slew of ways is fascinating to read, going far beyond standard filters.

To say the stock footage is well integrated is understating the case. The slavish devotion to detail is admirable and it pays off. We're given an array of material in sepia, black and white and even colour, to keep us both alert and interested, as well as to raise the believability factor. Only the recognisable bits lower it back down. I found both C Aubrey Smith and Shirley Temple, though I must have blinked when Judy Garland was on screen. That's Battleship Potemkin during the staircase scene, and Hitch's The Lodger for newsboys in the street. Military historians would certainly have a field day deciphering the variety of source material in evidence, not only to identify where it came from but also what was actually original. The magnificent tripods approaching London across the Thames and striding through the city were clearly added in for this film but so capably that we could well be forgiven for believing it really happened. And isn't that the point of this film?

At the end of the day, how well it plays to each viewer is going to depend on that. When Hines plays that angle up, he's echoing the sort of hype that every director throws out when he has a new picture looking for viewers but, in this instance, he's also echoing a hope that isn't merely financial in origin. 'It's absolutely true,' he says. 'It really happened. There really was a war between Earth and Mars. Or at least you will believe there was after you see this movie.' If we do, then this is a peach of a picture that will stun us with believable imagery, exhibited with an Erich von Stroheim attention to detail, like newspaper articles that we see for fractions of a second but are fully written in the style of the day. If we don't, then the plot holes are going to become more obvious, along with some dodgy moustaches, accents and fonts. I'm aware of the latter, but I'm on the side of the heat ray, the Martian cylinder and, not least, those awesome tripods. Where were your grandparents when the Martians invaded?

For those of you reading in Arizona, Timothy Hines has kindly allowed me to present War of the Worlds: The True Story in a mini-film festival I've programmed for CopperCon Revolution at the Windemere Hotel in Mesa. This event is open to the public and free of charge. It starts at 8.00pm on Thursday, 8th August and this feature will follow a ninety minute set of sci-fi short films and a short break. I hope to see you there.

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