Thursday, April 28, 2016

Wars of the Worlds

This is not a thing I ever imagined I’d be writing about today, but as often happens the introduction to a toy review led to a whole other train of thought. I don’t always hop on board and let those take me where they want. This time it seemed like a decent place to visit.
I have been fascinated with the concept of Orson Welles’ radio drama of War of the Worlds ever since I can remember. The modern legend surrounding the broadcast is that many listeners missed the indicators that it was a drama and took it for an actual news report of an alien invasion. Over the years the reports of the supposed mass hysteria that resulted have been disputed and mostly debunked. But when I first heard about this as a kid, I took the story at face value. In my mind, this Orson Welles fellow (that would later go on to voice one of the greatest villains in cinematic history, Unicron) had played a grand prank on the US populace. The 80s being what they were, I got the barest bones of the story and sort of filled in the rest in the grandest way my mind came up with.

Actually, I guess that’s pretty much how news works now, too.

In my mind, Welles had been a mischievous guy that was intentionally pranking the country. Since radio lacked visuals, it was easy for a talented man to paint a picture of this terrifying alien invasion through realistic new reports. Back in the day, everyone listened to radio and there probably weren’t more than a couple of channels. So I was picturing the classic “panic in the streets” scenario, with families abandoning their homes and the entire populace screaming into the night.

It was delightful.

Of course, it didn’t go down that way.

Welles broadcast was an episode of the anthology show The Mercury Theatre on the Air. By all reports the show didn’t have a lot of listeners, let alone the entire population of the United States of America. And Welles never intended for people to take the broadcast as real. Obviously as a dramatic performer he did want it to sound as real as possible, but only in service of the program, not as any kind of diabolical prank.

But the legend of War of the Worlds was firmly planted in my mind.

My dad gave me The Complete Science Fiction Treasury of H.G. Wells for Christmas one year. I loved books, but this didn’t seem like a particularly exciting example to me:

While I appreciate the art now, to a young Phantom that cover looked old and boring. I honestly can’t remember if I was aware of H.G. Wells yet or not. I don’t even recall how old I was when I got the book. I started reading adult fiction when I was around nine, and I’m not sure if the book was my first exposure to Wells’ writing or not. But I do know that I stuck the tome on the bookshelf and left it there for years.

Eventually I did become more familiar with the stories in the collection. Television didn’t used to be the vast selection of niche entertainment that it is now. You used to have to put effort into finding programming. I remember sitting down with the television listings from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and planning out my week in television, making a schedule for myself of every cartoon and science fiction or horror movie in the section.

Side Note 1: I was only six when it happened, but I remember when the Atlanta Journal merged with the Atlanta Constitution to leave only one major newspaper in Atlanta. One of them had a more overtly liberal slant, which irritated my dad. I remember his displeasure with the merger clearly.

Side Note 2: We did not buy TV Guide because why would you spend money on that when the newspaper prints the listings for free? I never even put my hands on a TV Guide until Mick Foley appeared on the cover. And I still have that issue.

Over my years of obsessively watching sci-fi classics every Saturday and Sunday that I could, all day long and into the night, I saw many adaptations of the works of H.G. Wells. Because I feel like it, here’s a rundown of some of the films that had the most impact:

The Time Machine (1960) – I’ve seen many different interpretations and adaptations of this story, but the Morlocks in this version scared the heck out of me. Rod Taylor gives a strong performance and Yvette Mimieux is absolutely gorgeous as Weena. I must’ve seen this at a young age because it’s one of those movies that is lodged in my consciousness.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) – I didn’t appreciate this one the first time I saw it. It took a horror movie fanatic friend of mine telling me to give it another chance for me to appreciate the sheer madness of this movie. Stan Winston’s work is incredible, and by itself sells the feature, even without Marlon Brando’s creepy performance. Also, Fairuza Balk is in it and she’s always been a source of wicked thoughts.

While I don’t have a particular attachment to James Whale’s The Invisible Man, there are movies inspired by Wells’ story that are impactful, is not great. Memoirs of an Invisible Man and The Hollow Man both explore the idea of man’s corruptibility in the same way that Wells did, though neither adapts his original story. I saw both in the theater and was disappointed by both despite loving John Carpenter and Paul Verhoeven. But each presents a different and interesting take on the idea of invisibility and accountability.

The Food of the Gods (1976) – I have never watched this movie. I read about it when I was younger and something about it really scared me. At some point I saw a trailer and for some reason that scared me even more. I get the impression that it’s just schlocky sci-fi with bad effects that reduces Wells’ message down to a “NATURE ATTACKS” theme, but as a kid I was scared of this one. I can’t remember the specifics.

Eventually I came around to the fact that I was familiar with a lot of the stories in that Treasury and that I needed to read them.

But today I’m talking about War of the Worlds.

My dad has always had a fondness for radio programming. He would buy cassettes and CDs of old radio shows and sometimes share them with me. It’s where I got my appreciation for The Shadow. At some point he had a recording of the original broadcast. It seemed ridiculous to me that anyone would have taken it as real, but I enjoyed the drama and Welles’ incredible delivery.

I haven’t watched it since I was a kid, but I remember thinking that the 1953 movie was boring. I thought the ships looked great, though.

The impetus behind this post – as unlikely as it may seem to those of you that have watched it – is the 1988 War of the Worlds television show, which is a sequel to the 1953 movie. I know that many people do not have a high opinion of this show. When I was twelve, I loved it. Now that I’m edging up on forty I barely remember anything about it, which is why I’ve had to pad this post out with other bits of H.G. Wells reminiscence.

In the show the aliens were scooped up by the government and stored in drums, kind of like the Return of the Living Dead zombies. Many years later (thirty-five?) the drums get irradiated somehow or other and it eliminates the bacteria that “killed” the aliens. The bad news is that the aliens never dies, they just fell into comas. Because this is a low budget television show, they have the power to possess human bodies.

In a story twist that I think was pretty neat, the world at large thinks the original invasion was a hoax.

The awakened aliens proceed to wreak havoc on Earth because everyone else from their planet is going to be arriving in about five years, expecting the first wave to have had the place all tidied up for them.

The government puts together a crack team of experts (on what I do not know) to stop the alien menace and protect humanity from extinction or alien possession or whatever. I don’t know why the government only assembles four people and why they don’t just send some Navy SEALS after them if they know they’re a threat. I don’t know how the government even knows what’s going on. Heck, I don’t even know who “the government” is in this thing. I just know that I enjoyed the show a lot and that its cancellation was heartbreaking.

As muddy as my memories are, I remember one thing very clearly. One event that makes this show stand out among all of the other schlocky, low budget shows that have ever been on television: at the end of the first season, a second alien race arrived on Earth to ruin things for everyone. This is one of the biggest plot developments I can recall from any of the television shows I watched in my young life. And not only does nobody ever talk about it, most people don’t even remember the show!

Side Note: Those that do say it sucked.

I want to watch it again, and yet I don’t. Right now I have only vague but pleasant memories stowed away in the back of my brain. I know the show was destination viewing for me. I think it was one of the few I had the VCR set to record. Thoughts of War of the Worlds make me happy and I kind of don’t want to revisit it and dash those warm feelings.

There’s also the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg.

I haven’t seen it(!).

I judged it by the trailers. It looked to me like it was going to be less of a science fiction film and more of a family-in-crisis drama. My guess at the time was that we would see lots of Tom Cruise running around with his daughter, lots of explosions, and very little of the aliens or their technology. I’ve never heard anything good enough to make me want to seek this one out.

Even though the Cruise vehicle is only ten years old, I’d like to see a new adaptation of the material. I love a good, old fashioned space invaders movie and I think if we could get one with the right tone it could be great. I want hard science fiction. No famous faces that will overwhelm the concept, no one-liners, nothing but aliens ruining everyone’s day. And yes – I am well aware that a new Independence Day movie is coming and that it will deliver some of those things. But for some reason I can’t find it within myself to give a crap about that one. I didn’t dislike the first one – aside from Randy Quaid playing the most annoying character this side of Pat Riley – but nothing about the sequel is exciting me.

That’s all I’ve got for today! As much as I hate aliens, I sure seem to be fascinated by them this week, huh? Tune in to the Needless Things Podcast tomorrow for even more alien talk!
Seriously – we’re talking Star Wars and aliens get brought up in a significant way.

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