The War of the Worlds (1953) vs. War of the Worlds (2005)
The War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by author H. G. Wells, first published in 1897, and focused on the earth in the days of an alien invasion. 56 years later, it was adapted to a film. The original theatrical version focused more heavily on the reaction of the United States armed forces in fighting back against it, while also having the journey of survival between soon-to-be-lovers Clayton (Gene Barry) and Sylvia (Ann Robinson), beautifully combining the two elements which make up a good alien invasion. The visuals, for 1953, are still quite beautiful to this day (yes, some of the parts are ridiculous, especially the alien’s first appearance outside of the pod-ships, but they can be forgiven), and it rightly deserved its Academy Award victory for Special Effects (as well as a couple of other nominations in Sound and Film Editing). It’s a gorgeous looking film and the soundtrack is fantastic.
A further 52 years later, though, Steven Spielberg joined forces with Tom Cruise in reinventing the tale for a modern audience, and War of the Worlds was released. War of the Worlds took a slightly different direction in its storytelling, more of a family survival story (not too far from the original novel’s plot) of Ray (Tom Cruise) trying to protect his daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), and son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin). Obviously it’s a great looking film (give Spielberg the head seat, John Williams the musical role, an Academy Award winning cinematographer in Janusz Kaminski, the joint most successful winner of the Academy Award for Best Film Editing and a budget of roughly $130million and it’s bound to look and feel like a great movie), and some of the shots, especially with the alien-eye hunting them down, are fantastic. However, Cruise delivers a sub-par performance (and he isn’t helped by a poorly written and acted Justin Chatwin and a still-young Dakota Fanning) and the story of their survival becomes too farfetched at times to be believed.
Going in I was pretty confident in expecting to prefer the remake (I hadn’t seen the remake in over a decade but really enjoyed it upon its release, and, shockingly, had never sat through the original from start to finish), but I was amazed at how much more I preferred the original. My favourite thing about the original was its treatment of the aliens; the meteor hits, there’s confusion and intrigue, people go about their normal day and quite a lengthy spell into the film (during which we’ve established all our main characters) the meteor begins to open in a slow and suspenseful scene. In the remake we get introduced to Ray, briefly told he’s a terrible father and then the lightning hits and the aliens are there (in ships which are already buried underneath the ground; I’ll be coming back to this). Despite the remake clocking in over half-an-hour longer, the aliens are given to us much sooner; and I remember the advertisements and the promotional footage hiding away the alien’s appearance to generate intrigue for those wanting to see the film, fantastic, but it’s ruined when you give us them ten minutes into a two-hour film. It means that at some point the film has to come down (unlike the original which continued to rise throughout) and we get that in the form of the scene where they’re invited into a man’s home (just Ray and Rachel (they’d lost Robbie by this point) and nobody else despite seeing hundreds of people fleeing the aliens) and there’s a long period of talking and an even longer period of the alien eye looking round the home. Yes it’s dramatic, and you’re following the dynamic there (the man who took them in wants to kill the aliens whereas Ray is adamant on survival so wants to avoid them), but it goes on far too long and at one point you have to question the alien looking round. Why is it so focused on finding people inside this burnt-out looking house? It’s a copy of a scene in the original (although the colours of the alien-eye have changed) but the original doesn’t linger on this for too long. The remake spends far too long of the running time on it, and it becomes obvious as the time drags on that this scene is designed to calm down the audience before the final few scenes.
Now to talk about the aliens themselves; in the original they came down in pods disguised as meteors, which fit the narrated story that they live on Mars and want a new planet to call home. In the remake their spaceships were already here and they simply came down in a bolt of lightning to activate their machines. I hated this. The size of the machines they were using could not have possibly been buried under so much of the earth for over ‘a million years’ without anybody spotting them; especially in the middle of a large city which should have sewers and water pipes and all-sorts running underground. If you want to go this way, have the machines rise from the water, where it’s believable that they could have been hiding. In the original they were a lot smaller, so it’s a little more believable that they could have been hiding under earth’s ground, but it’s still a silly thing to include and completely disagrees with the narration. Both Morgan Freeman and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who narrate the opening and ending, point out that the aliens are struggling to live on Mars and need a new home so they’ve been observing earth (as a whole host of other planets aren’t suitable for them), but why has their machines been buried here for over ‘a million years’? If they wanted this planet (even as a backup) why didn’t they just claim it back then? Rather than going through the bother of hiding ships underground just in-case one day they may want the planet.
Both films are very entertaining (even if the remake drags on a little too long) and they each have their pros and cons. The original has a better paced storytelling arc with a more militaristic plot where we learn a lot more about the aliens whereas the remake focuses on a family who don’t get along surviving in a series of plot conveniences with some awfully-inputted moments of exposition to tell the audience about the power of the aliens (such as the news reporter showing her the footage of the explosions hitting their shield). Ray and his family have so much luck that it takes you away from their journey somewhat, and they never lost anyone, while Clayton and Sylvia had to survive through the hardship of losing loved ones. The original is far from perfect (the way the end scene is told is quite poor with flocks of people filling churches in an abandoned city; if they couldn’t escape it would have been better served telling us they couldn’t escape rather than have them look like hardcore religionists who believe in church over a sensible escape plan) just like the remake has some brilliant elements to it; namely the aliens’ appearance and the way some of the scenes are shot. But overall the victory has to go with the original purely because it tells a better story.