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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005 07:34 pm

War, thrice

There are now three versions of the H.G. Wells' classic

More than 50 years have passed since the last movie based on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and now, in 2005, there are three new versions. This is a rare opportunity to compare the visions of three filmmakers, or perhaps one with a vision and two in different stages of blindness. The first media presentation was the notorious radio broadcast in 1938 by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. Many Americans thought that they were hearing an actual news report, an event that was dramatized by the TV movie The Night That Panicked America (1975), but they just weren’t listening very closely. I’ve heard the entire radio show; a disclaimer appeared in the introduction and was also sprinkled throughout during the breaks.
Fifteen years later, George Pal produced an excellent movie version of the novel, and it ranks among the best science-fiction films of the ’50s. Steven Spielberg’s spectacular new version, however, is likely to displace it as the definitive version of the Wells classic. Tom Cruise stars as the protagonist, who has been changed from a scientist to just an average Joe, and he is an excellent focal point for the audience. The special effects are mesmerizing, but surprisingly spare, as Spielberg focuses on the people. Instead of a ridiculous, nationalistic piece of beat-the-aliens Independence Day junk, we get a dark tale of survival. There have been complaints about the ending, but it does follow Wells’ logical conclusion.
C. Thomas Howell stars in another American version, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but this one slipped under the radar. Aliens attacking Earth is a subject that cries out for a large budget, and this one succumbs to its limitations. Howell gives it his all, but he is hindered by a flat screenplay. Worst of all are the alien machines, which move like inebriated bugs. There is very little to recommend here, although it is a masterpiece compared with No. 3, The War of the Worlds. Timothy Hines bombastically claims to have made the only authentic version of the story. He may have used the original setting and location, but that doesn’t translate into quality. Hines has a talent for cinema ranking below that of Edward Wood Jr., and his film is an atrocity of epic proportions. The acting and computer graphics are amateurish, and the continuity is comical. Far too much footage of this three-hour abomination is devoted to endless shots of characters walking. No normal human being can sit through this in one shot. Stick with Spielberg — no one does it better.

New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Nov. 29): Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sky High, March of the Penguins, and Murderball.
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