David Latt’s “H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds” (note the inclusion of the “H.G. Wells”) is not to be confused with the Steven Spielberg mega budget “War of the Worlds” (note the lack of inclusion of “H.G. Wells”), or even the British “War of the Worlds”. Mind you, not that anyone will mistake Latt’s version for the Spielberg version; or if they did, the first appearance of a shockingly rail-thin and white-haired C. Thomas Howell as our hero George Herbert will quickly dispel that notion. Made for a purported $1 million (couch change in comparison to Spielberg’s version), Latt’s “War of the Worlds” is a surprisingly good film, with above par performances and even decent special effects, three elements one rarely finds in direct-to-video fodder.
Howell stars as George, an astronomer on his way to work when meteorites crash to Earth, unleashing giant alien crab-like robot walkers onto an unsuspecting human population. Armed with green disintegration rays, killer green clouds, metal tentacles, and other weapons of mass destruction, the aliens commence the thrashing of the planet, destroying everything in sight. Through this backdrop death and destruction, George makes a desperate trek upstate to Washington D.C., where his wife and son were headed moments before the invasion. Although told that D.C. has been destroyed, George refuses to give up.
As the invasion continues unabated, the film’s primary focus remains on George and the people he meets along the way. Andrew Lauer as an injured soldier appears for a moment, then again later in the film; Rhett Giles as an Australian pastor whose conviction in God and faith slowly fades with each misery he comes across; and Jake Busey (“Starship Troopers”) as the maniacal Samuelson, a cross between a psychotic Patton and a Section H. Through it all, we see the war from George’s point of view. Well actually it’s not much of a war; it’s a massacre, and the human race looks doomed.
Knowing full well that he’s working with a limited budget, director David Latt makes great use of his resources by not spreading them too thin. The film is set primarily in the countryside, which makes it easier to contain the creation of mass devastation sprinkled throughout George’s route. (It’s only at the end that we see what has happened to a major city.) And despite the fact that a lot of the budget must have been spent on the special effects, the film’s aesthetics is impressive, giving the impression of being more expensive than its actual budget. There is little, if any, of that “cheap” look one expects from a movie with such an ambitious premise, further placing “War of the Worlds” in the category of direct-to-video films that deserves better than, well, going directly to video.
The film works best as a small movie about everyday people caught in an epic war beyond their control. To this end, Latt has made a concerted effort to concentrate on the characters, and in doing so makes us care about what happens to them. A particularly effective sequence has George and the Pastor trapped inside a house as the walkers go about their destructive march beyond the house’s caved in barriers. We never see the battle taking place beyond the house, but we can hear it, and are forced to wait it out along with George and the Pastor. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed sequence, the kind that makes Latt’s “War of the Worlds” more than just a cash-in attempt to trick people waiting for Spielberg’s movie, a notion that one can’t help but conjure up when hearing about the film’s pedigree. (It used to be called “Invasion”, but was re-titled to take advantage of Spielberg’s looming film; also, the “Independence Day”-inspired cover art doesn’t help.)
Despite being much better than expected, the film does arouse some nitpicks. Rhett Ghiles’ Pastor quickly gets on one’s nerves, and after a while, you wish he would either kill himself or quit bitching already. Also, the young woman playing Howell’s wife is much too young; she looks to be in her ’20s, while Howell, with his white hair and thin frame, looks like a man in his ’50s. The better choice would have been to make the wife the daughter, so instead of going to D.C. to find his wife and son, George could just be looking for his children. And Jake Busey, following in crazy dad’s footsteps, plays crazy so well in the film that you have to wonder why those soldiers even followed this nutcase to begin with; he’s that obviously unhinged from frame one.
With the impending release of Spielberg’s version, Latt’s “War of the Worlds” will most likely disappear into the back shelves of video stores everywhere, which would be a terrible shame, as it’s a good movie with strong performances, especially from C. Thomas Howell, who despite looking frighteningly thin and frail (even before the aliens invade), delivers a powerful performance. The special effects are wisely kept to a minimum, and what we do see of the alien invaders are surprisingly well done. The film is also pretty gory, which isn’t surprising considering the aliens’ propensity for snatching victims off the ground with metal tentacles.
Do yourself a favor and take a chance with Latt’s movie. Even if you end up seeing Spielberg’s gazillion dollar budgeted film, go to your local video store and pick up Latt’s “War of the Worlds” anyway. It deserves your support.
David Michael Latt (director) / David Michael Latt, Carlos De Los Rios (screenplay)
CAST: C. Thomas Howell …. George Herbert
Rhett Giles …. Pastor Victor
Jake Busey …. Major Samuelson
Peter Greene …. Matt Herbert
Andrew Lauer …. Lt. Kerry Williams