This War Of The Worlds review contains spoilers.
War of the Worlds Episodes 1 and 2
No ‘The’. That’s how to distinguish this TV version of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic from the one that aired late last year. That was The War Of The Worlds, this one’s just War Of The Worlds – no definite article, more casual, more approachable, more modern.
Of course, as a French-US co-production, they might have gone with La War Of The Worlds, but that would just have been silly.
There is nothing silly about this opening double-bill. It’s deathly serious, a paranoid invasion thriller that rivals even the Six O’Clock news in its evocation of dread. It’s so sombre, in fact, that watching it is almost a relief, given our current situation. To finally see the world fall apart and any semblance of normality poof into the air as people drop dead on the streets feels like exactly what we’ve all been braced for. Finally! It’s arrived.
What, exactly, has arrived is a question for French astronomer Dr Catherine Durrand (Léa Drucker). She’s the first one to spot an unusual signal surge from a distant planet, timed exactly to twelve months since it was first recorded – the amount of time, she hypotheses, it would take for an extra-terrestrial intelligence to complete a full scan of Earth. That’s right, those alien bastards have been up there for a year, photocopying all our stuff and planning their move.
Their move is an effective one. After shooting thousands of impenetrable space-balls into Earth’s highly populated areas, they trigger an electromagnetic wave that fries the human brain. When it goes off, the mind of anyone who isn’t either inside a metal container, underground, or a dog becomes Instant Soup. Only a handful of Franco-Anglo survivors remain to do battle with the robotic foes scuttling around to pick off the stragglers and tidy all the corpses into neat piles.
Brand recognition aside, it isn’t immediately apparent why War Of The Worlds – from the creator of Misfits Howard Overman and the team that made BBC One’s Merlin and Atlantis – is pegged to the H.G. Wells novel. Judging by the first two episodes of eight, this modern update is only sparsely associated with the original and, allowing for surprises later on, could so far be any nameless invasion thriller. The anti-colonial subtext of Wells’ book – and, insistently so, of the BBC version – appears to be absent. Aside from Kariem (Bayo Gbadamosi), a refugee character who smuggles himself out of a Calais camp, a line about humanity forgetting its differences to unite against a common foe, and the unavoidable spectre of real-world terror attacks, the politics seem to have been bleached out.
That doesn’t make it a bad watch, only a generic one. The first episode follows a now-familiar pattern for this kind of apocalypse thriller: scientists at a remote outpost look concerned by a graph, the army marches in, people start dying and all of a sudden, it’s a race for survival in which florists, HR managers and suburban teens are running in the streets facing moral dilemmas over the kind of people they’re going to be at the end of the world: good Samaritan or looting warlord?
Those choices are still being made by the rest of our stragglers, in London: neuroscientist Bill, played by Vikings and The Usual Suspects’ Gabriel Byrne, his ex-wife Helen, played by Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, Kariem, and the Gresham family, whose blind teenage daughter (Daisy Edgar-Jones, soon to be seen in HBO’s much-anticipated Normal People adaptation) appears to have a canary-down-the-mine super sense when it comes to the invading aliens. (I mean, useful for her, but also… crass?) In Grenoble: Dr Durrand, her missing junkie sister Sophia (Emilie de Preissac), Col. Mokrani (Adel Bencherif). And in the north of France, Gresham family husband Jonathan (Stephen Campbell Moore), away on business and embarking on a spot of adultery when the attack arrived.
It’s a very slick arrangement, on the whole – quiet, tense and moodily atmospheric. Director Gilles Coulier capably builds tension in the first episode, which treats its ‘corpses in the streets’ cliff-hanger with the due reverence it deserves. Reverence is the mood here. Think Chernobyl, not Buffy. Where there is dialogue, it’s in the form of hushed, terrified exchanges totally devoid of humour – a surprise from the creator of the effervescent Misfits and Crazyhead, which portrayed two very different, idiosyncratic and lively visions of the apocalypse. This one’s more grown-up, more efficient but also more glossily anonymous.
War Of The Worlds continues next Thursday at 9pm on FOX UK. It’s currently available on EPIX in the US.