Epix Now: War of the Worlds (2019) Pilot - Reviewed

H.G. Wells’ timeless science fiction horror novel The War of the Worlds needs no introduction.  The story of alien invaders from Mars descending upon Earth to wipe out the human inhabitants and take over the planet has been adapted countless times over into films, television shows, games and even musical form.  No doubt the story of the human struggle to survive amid the ever growing threat of extermination at the clutches of extraterrestrials inspired many like-minded alien invasion pictures including Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Independence Day and Signs.  Though I myself have a soft spot for the British rock opera take done by Jeff Wayne in the late 1970s, the two versions widely considered to be the definitive screen adaptations came from Byron Haskin in 1953 and Steven Spielberg in 2005. 

Which brings us to this new 2019 French-English televised eight-episode miniseries produced by StudioCanal and released in the US by Epix Now, with the pilot dropped for free as a sort of appetizer for subscribers keen on binging the series.  Arriving on the heels of the BBC’s own far more literal take on The War of the Worlds set in the nineteenth century period while retaining the tripods seen in the 2005 film, this Epix Now War of the Worlds created by Howard Overman takes after the 1953 film more than anything by playing fast and loose with the science fiction elements as well as the diverse ensemble cast of characters. 

Featuring Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Lea Drucker and Natasha Little, this modern reimaging of Wells’ story shot and aired in panoramic widescreen presents a very different approach to the alien attack that’s frightening in ways both understated and unexpected.  Running about an hour in length and deliberately unspectacular to the point of being anticlimactic, War of the Worlds subverts the cliché of big explosions and laser beams associated with the lore and instead goes for something a bit harder to pinpoint and therefore far more chilling. 

What struck me about this interpretation, having seen so many over the years, is how much the viewer is kept from seeing nearly anything.  The first time we see any of the otherworldly cylinders on the Earth’s surface, it is through a fuzzy video screen.  Watching the pilot I was reminded more than anything of the nuclear holocaust drama Testament in which the wave of apocalypse is felt gradually and from afar.  Initially one may grow frustrated at the efforts taken to hide the invaders from the viewer and the characters are more or less interchangeable and yet you have to laud them for taking such a bold and restrained approach to a story as iconic as this one.  

--Andrew Kotwicki