War of the Worlds (1953) & Independence Day (1996)

Posted by on Dec 22, 2011 in Out of This World | 0 comments


Disclaimer: When aliens fail to research our planet and our weapons fail to destroy them, a virus invented by God or Jeff Goldblum will save humanity.

H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is perhaps the most influential of all science-fiction literature, directly inspiring a TV series, two film adaptations, and the infamous radio broadcast in 1938. Led by the ingenious Orson Welles, the radio broadcast has since come to be listed in the dictionary under the word “hysteria.” Professor Richard J. Hand somehow calculated that 6 million citizens heard the CBS show, 1.7 million of whom thought it true, and 1.2 million of whom were “genuinely frightened.” Newspapers reported mass panic, as people fled major cities and attested to smelling poison gas and seeing lightning. Though the 1953 film adaptation didn’t have quite the immediate response, filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg (2005 remake), Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), and Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!) took notice.

Independence2Following the influential broadcast, studio execs approached big-name directors such as Welles, Hitchcock, and Cecil B. DeMille. Though they all turned the project down, DeMille made sure it was in good hands with sci-fi figurehead George Pal (who produced) and effects guru Byron Haskins, who directed. H.G. Wells’ estate was so pleased with the adaptation they also allowed Pal to make The Time Machine.

The story, which has been replicated in some form or another dozens of times, submits that Martians have been studying our planet and preparing to, one day, inhabit it for themselves. In the 1953 film, a ship falls from the sky to a small California town whose residents believe it to be a meteor. Conveniently, a renowned scientist (Gene Barry) was camping nearby and checks it out. When it cools down, aliens come out and survey the area, melting a few town officials on the way. Eventually hundreds of these ships land throughout the world, and though it proves fruitless because of the ships’ shields, the military responds with everything they’ve got (including the atomic bomb). They do this, however, against the wishes of pacifists. “Shooting’s no good,” a preacher says. “It’s always been a good persuader,” a general replies. While the scientist tries to figure out a way to defeat the aliens, he must also run for his life with a pathetic and helpless love interest (Ann Robinson).

Emmerich’s (The Patriot, Godzilla, independence3The Day After Tomorrow) version sways a bit from War of the Worlds. After the ships arrive, we mostly follow David (Jeff Goldblum), a cable repairman and MIT graduate, who discovers a message from the aliens. How does he do this, you may ask? The same way he’ll eventually penetrate their force fields: with a Macintosh iBook. He saves his ex-wife and other White House staff, and works with members of the CIA, Area 51, and Air Force (led by Will Smith) to strategize a counterattack. As with War of the Worlds, people take to the streets in mass panic after major cities are destroyed, while we watch through eyes of Americans, who will no doubt figure out a solution and save the otherwise helpless countries around the world.

Independence Day borrows from and pays homage to several sci-fi classics, such as Star Wars and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but mostly mirrors the Wells’ classic. It’s quite surprising, actually, how much they parallel outside of the story. Both won Oscars for special effects and were nominated for best sound, the destruction and “payoff” scenes are strikingly similar, and the acting/dialogue is both painful and humorous to watch.

Of the $2 million budget for War of the Worlds, $1.4 million was spent on the elaborate effects headed by Gordon Jennings. Who knows how much of the $70 million for Independence Day was for Volker Engel’s effects (it holds the record for most work with miniatures)? The Martian saucers float slowly, laying waste to entire cities with what appears to be a vacuum attachment. The death rays used by the Martians in each film seem to have oven settings that include vaporize, explode, and roast, depending on which version you watch. The ships emanate a green aura, make sounds like an Atari game, and are clearly suspended from wires. But what do we care? All we want to see is death and destruction. The 1953 version’s most exciting action comes during the destruction of Toro Air Force Base (the same used in Independence Day), while Independence Day blows up a number of landmarks, including the White House. Besides the destruction scenes, which people will no doubt enjoy, the ultimate payoff in both films is when we actually see the creatures. Both tease us by creating an ominous tension in the scenes, which use the “jump scare” tactic before revealing the slippery devils.

The acting in Worlds is remarkably bad, consisting of blank facial expressions and the absence of intonation during dialogue. Still, Independence Day may be worse, as it most closely resembles a Michael Bay movie (with plot holes to match). The melodramatic over-acting is only exceeded by some ridiculous quotes including Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth,” anything Randy Quaid says, and Bill Pullman’s mankind speech, which a BBC review dubbed “the most jaw-droppingly pompous soliloquy delivered in a mainstream Hollywood movie.” Thankfully, we have Goldblum, who fills the voids and gaps with awkwardice and reluctant revelations.

I might as well mention Steven Spielberg’s disappointing remake. Like the others, he relies heavily on special effects (there’s more than 500 CGI shots) and not enough on developing his characters. The intimate angle, of seeing the entire thing through the scope of a divorcee and his two children (like Signs), had potential. But I never really cared if they lived or died. I merely wanted the slow-moving film to end.

Interestingly, Independence Day inspired a BBC radio broadcast spin-off, which obviously mirrored the 1938 CBS broadcast, which thankfully accompanies the 1953 film’s DVD.

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