Everybody loves an alien invasion. *Okay, maybe not the people actually facing the alien invasion. Stories about creatures from beyond the stars coming to Earth with hostile intent are riveting, because they put humanity in serious trouble with no easy way out. Worse, they’re always just that little bit more plausible than a lot of other disaster scenarios. Zombies aren’t coming to get us any time soon, but who knows what’s out there in outer space? And, if aliens invaded Earth, would we survive?
A big part of why the alien invasion genre has been so popular over the years is that the first example remains the best. First published in 1898, HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds is a tale of devastation in the wake of a surprise invasion by vastly superior alien forces that remains as gripping and propulsive as it was over a century ago. In some ways, it’s even more topical today; the legendary twist ending where the aliens are wiped out by a virus doesn’t seem quite so feel-good in 2020.
Wells’ original story has been adapted multiple times over the years, from Orson Wells’ classic 1938 radio adaptation that terrified America to a string of movie versions, and even a much-loved rock opera in the 1970s. Oddly, it’s taken television a while to get in on the act: while a recent period version from the BBC received mixed reviews, the latest adaptation, the French-English War of the Worlds (no “the”) has a much surer grasp on what’s made this story endure for well over a century.
"Beneath the surface it’s a nightmare focused on the dark side of human behaviour"
Picking up the original novel today, the first thing that’s clear is that Wells isn’t messing around. Its lean prose and no-nonsense story are a big part of its impact, and they remain a major part of why it’s still considered a classic today. No sooner have people started to wonder what’s going on in outer space, than the aliens have arrived, and once her, they promptly get down to the business of extermination.
Beyond that, it’s the human element that makes this tale of alien invasion a classic. While the tripods are cool, they’re not really the point, which is why long stretches of the original story don’t really feature them at all. Instead, it focuses on the struggles of regular people to survive in a world where everything they knew has been destroyed. That’s what makes the original so enduring, even as the idea of invaders from Mars in giant walking tanks has become increasingly implausible: it’s not about the invasion, it’s about how people try to survive it.
Which is why it’s a relief to find that while the latest War of the Worlds drops a lot of the obvious icons of the story, the core remains intact. There are no tripods or death-rays here; instead, the invasion takes the form of a strange signal first picked up by astronomer Catherine Durand (Léa Drucker) of the I.R.A.M. Observatory in the French Alps. It seems that aliens have been monitoring Earth for the past year – but to what end?
While politicians dither, a range of small spacecraft burrow into the earth around major population centres across Europe, panicking regular folk like teenager Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones from Normal People) and her family. Neuroscientist-turned-high school teacher Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne) connects the dots thanks to some brainwave experiments he’s been running and races to save his ex wife Helen (Elizabeth McGovern), but it’s (almost) too late: the aliens trigger an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out most of the population and leaves the stragglers easy prey for their robotic war machines.
If HG Wells had merely written a straightforward tale of survival, it’s doubtful it would have lasted this long. What makes his story so grimly compelling is that beneath the surface it’s a nightmare focused on the dark side of human behaviour. His aliens might be unknowable creatures, but their behaviour seems totally plausible – because it’s exactly how humans would behave.
In writing his novel, Wells was inspired by tales of the British Empire’s brutal overseas conquests to ask the question: “What would happen if somebody did to us what we did to them?” There’s a sense of cosmic karmic payback to it all that gives his fantasy a grimly realistic logic. Aliens that come in peace always have a touch of fantasy about them. The aliens of War of the Worlds who want to wipe us out and take our stuff? They’re all too believable.
War of the Worlds season 1 premieres with a double episode on SBS at 8:30pm on Thursday 9 July, continuing weekly at 9:30pm. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand the day of broadcast, including in subtitled Simplified Chinese and Arabic. Start watching at SBS On Demand now:
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