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The War of the Worlds: Sky on Fire

<em>The War of the Worlds: </em>Sky on Fire

As The War of the Worlds is essentially a cautionary tale, each generation gets its own adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic account of extraterrestrial invasion—one of the several seminal science-fiction novels, also including The Time Machine (1895) and The First Men in the Moon (1901), written by the prolific British author.

A superior Martian civilization seeks to leave its dying planet and transplant itself to Earth, visualized as rural England. Originally published in serial form in 1897, Wells’s durable fiction is at once a prophecy of modern carnage and technological havoc and an example of psychological blowback, projecting colonial brutality on the imperial metropolis. In this “scientific romance,” the British Empire gets its comeuppance, as the Martians proceed to lay waste to London and its surroundings. The novel’s narrator survives the onslaught to invoke the extermination of the Tasmanians, reminding the reader that, before judging the alien would-be conquerors, “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought.”

Orson Welles took another tack. Broadcast for Halloween 1938, less than a year before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Welles’s radio drama, which took the form of a mock news report, played on prewar jitters and triggered a mass hysteria that, though it has been exaggerated, made Welles’s reputation. But realism was less a factor than sensation in the film version that came fifteen years later. Following Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951) to complete producer George Pal’s trilogy of Cold War F/X-travaganzas, and acutely aware of its own historical context, this War of the Worlds begins by conjuring black-and-white memories of World Wars I and II, then switches to strident Technicolor for post­atomic extraterrestrial combat.

Closer to Welles than Wells, the 2005 Steven Spielberg War of the Worlds allegorizes the events of 9/11, complete with Tom Cruise’s mutation from callow, hotshot rapscallion to responsible mensch—a George W. Bush–like transformation played against such evocative imagery as pictures of the “missing,” the Manhattan skyline, and bewildered, dust-coated survivors. (Imagining something like nature’s revenge, the 2020 Epix mini­series has eerie intimations of a pandemic, which was, after all, how Earth prevailed over Wells’s Martians.)

The 2005 War was, Spielberg maintained, “as ultrarealistic as I’ve ever attempted to make a movie, in terms of its documentary style.” Be that as it may, he grew up on the 1953 The War of the Worlds, made by two veteran showmen and inveterate tinkerers, Pal (1908–80) and director Byron Haskin (1899–1984).

“George Pal’s most expensive film up to that point, War was made during the highest anxiety of the Cold War. Armageddon was much on America’s mind.”

The War of the Worlds is pure spectacle—hot comic-book chiaroscuro, flaming skies out of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

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