The first episode of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, a sprawling attempt to look at the key themes uniting all on-screen sci-fi over the years, deals with the concept of alien life. Inevitably, when you’re talking about alien life in science fiction films, you end up talking about alien invasion. And when you’re talking about alien invasion, you sooner or later get onto that most influential of invasion narratives, The War of the Worlds.
But which War of the Worlds? When writer and producer Dean Devlin, who knows a thing or two about marauding extraterrestrials thanks to his work on Independence Day, says “You can’t make a movie about an alien invasion without tipping your hat to [The] War of the Worlds. It’s the Godfather of alien invasion movies.” he’s clearly talking about the marvellous 1953 version, directed by Byron Haskin and produced by genre legend George Pal. But there have been a number of adaptations over the years since writer H.G. Wells first put his bleakly terrifying tale down on paper in the mid-1890s, with each speaking to the fears and anxieties of the time.
The original novel, written at the height of the British Empire, flips the script on colonialism, depicting a scenario where overwhelmingly white Britain finds herself under attack by a technologically superior aggressor who has no qualms about putting the native population to the heat-beam. The thin red line of the British military is no match for the sprawling red weeds that accompany the Martian invasion, nor the towering tripods.
In Cameron’s series, author Gary K. Wolfe notes that “Wells intended it to be a confrontation with ourselves. How do you feel when it happens to you?” Clearly, while the sun might not set on the British Empire, the Red Planet certainly does.
Then there’s the famous – or infamous – 1938 radio adaptation masterminded by Orson “no relation” Welles. Welles’ production supposedly sparked widespread panic when it hit the delicate eardrums of America; presented mostly as a fake radio bulletin, it convinced many that an invasion was really underway. That sounds unlikely to modern minds, until you recall that this was released on the eve of World War II and in the wake of the rise of Nazism in Germany; fears of a more earthly invasion were right up there in the zeitgeist, ready to be triggered by Welles’ Theatre of the Air.
Then there’s Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation, which Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Return head writer Elliot Kalan rightly pegs as having “…a sense of post 9/11 threat.” Terrorism was the cultural boogeyman of the time, to be sure, and the shots of Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning scrambling away from danger caked in dust and dodging debris certainly recall news footage of the Twin Tower attacks. Spielberg himself turns up to confirm this, saying “I wouldn’t have done War of the Worlds if it weren’t for 9/11.”
But then there’s the War of the Worlds adaptation that Cameron’s documentary series doesn’t look at – the 2019 Franco-American production that sees Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern contending with the alien onslaught. What can this eight-part series, currently streaming at SBS On Demand, tell us about what terrifies us now?
Tellingly, it’s the way in which the Martian menace attacks humanity that speaks volumes. In this latest version, the good old heat ray is swapped out for a broadcast signal that can just turn off the human brain. One minute you’re walking around doing human things, the next you’re a pile of loose limbs on the footpath. In a series not short on chilling moments, many of the most unsettling involve our characters making their way through streets littered with bodies left where they fell.
It kind of looks like a pandemic.
Now, obviously, both War of the Worlds and James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction were made before the onset of the COVID crisis, and the effects of our real-world emergency, while nothing to laugh at, aren’t nearly as dramatic as an alien invasion, but as Cameron’s series avows, the power of War of the Worlds is its ability to dramatise anxieties buried in the collective unconscious: colonialism, fascism, terrorism… and now this, a pandemic we’d been warned for years was on the cards.
There’s an old saying that science fiction is never really about the future, it’s about the time in which it is written, and the power of The War of the Worlds is that this holds true for every version of the story, from 1897 to now.
James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction airs on SBS VICELAND on Thursday nights at 8.30pm. All six episodes are now streaming at SBS On Demand:
In a very musical episode, Lin-Manuel Miranda breaks with history in the Disney Plus release of his broadway hit 'Hamilton', and Fiona pays tribute to the extraordinary scores of Ennio Morricone (and the flicks you can hear them on SBS On Demand). Fiona and Ben also review brand new sci fi drama series 'War of the Worlds' and give their take on streaming titles 'Disclosure' and 'America to Me'.