War of the Worlds (2005, Latt)

Rating: B-

Dir: David Michael Latt
Star: C.Thomas Howell, Rhett Giles, Andrew Lauer, Jake Busey

Watching this immediately after the Spielberg one – and I mean, immediately – I was braced with low expectations, beyond the Independence Day ripoff cover. This cost perhaps 1% of the money spent on the Cruise missile, so how could it possibly compete? Wisely, perhaps, it largely doesn’t try: oh, sure, it’s got heat-rays and alien machines. But this is a philosophical, thoughtful version; yes, this bogs down at times, yet it’s clear the script has had more attention put into it. For example, the ending, abrupt elsewhere, is nicely foreshadowed here, with even an interesting hint that the aliens’ fatal illness might not have been entirely natural.

Howell, who worked with Spielberg in ET and Cruise in The Outsiders, is surprisingly impressive and much more credible than Cruise as an “everyman”, though the point of making him an astronomer is never clear. He heads to Washington to try to link up with his wife – we get more breast in the opening scene than all of Spielberg’s story! – and son, played on screen by Howell’s real life son. On the way, he hooks up with a priest (Giles), who is finding it hard to keep the faith as things collapse, and encounters a soldier whose sanity drifts from questionable to absent – that’s Busey, natch.

Our hero and the priest are trapped in a basement, which is where the film does grind, with dialogue that largely belabors any points being made. I confess my attention was sorely taxed, the longer these scenes went on. But for every such moment, another had dramatic impact to match its big-budget brother. In an interesting stylistic choice, Latt changes the tripods into something that looks more like a giant bug, with six legs. They look credible enough, but the heat-ray is pretty cheesy, in comparison to some impressively blasted landscapes. Given the budget, it’s simply an feat that the FX don’t suck – and overall, this has to go down as one of the better direct-to-video movies I’ve seen.

Nod to previous version: Howell’s character is called George Herbert, a neat reversal of H.G.Wells’ first names. And this was originally called Invasion – according to one report, the title was supposedly changed before filming started. Except in the behind-the-scenes footage on the DVD, they still seem to be using Invasion on the clapperboards. Hmmm…