War of the Worlds the True Story

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/12/13 12:26:10

"Victorian found-footage sci-fi horror! That's a genre-film bingo!"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 BOSTON SCI-FI FEST: Around the time Stephen Spielberg's version of "The War of the Worlds" came out, Timothy Hines and Pendragon Pictures did their own, a three-hour period piece (which David Cornelius gives a thorough evisceration/appreciation elsewhere on this site). I haven't seen it, so I can't say whether "The Untold Story" is that footage thoroughly recut, the same cast and crew giving themselves a do-over, or some combination of the two. It doesn't really matter, though, because the end result is not very good.

The story is a classic of science fiction from before the genre had the name, with Martians leaving their dying planet to invade Earth. This version takes place at around the turn of the twentieth century, with canisters falling to Earth in England and disgorging steam-era tripods with heat rays, and Bertie Wells (Anthony Piana), who was among the first on the scene at the initial crash, going on an Odyssey across the ruined landscape during the very one-sided war.

The hook to this version is that it is presented as a 1964 interview with Wells (now played by Floyd Reichman), the last survivor of the invasion, which also incorporates previously unseen footage from 1900, kept classified by the British government for decades. The cynical among you might argue that, as the previous version was an attempt to cash in on a big-budget studio tentpole, this one aims to simultaneously cash in on found-footage horror and renewed interest in this period (Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, etc.). And, to be honest, that's not the most horrible idea in the world, especially since Hines is loyal to the source material to a fault (I suspect all that of the elder Bertie's lines are narration from H.G. Wells's original novel).

Unfortunately, there is little wit or invention to be found here. Presenting this movie as an artifact from a universe where this invasion actually happened flattens the story - chapter headings tell the audience what will come next and the format doesn't allow Hines to surprise them in any way. The first-person narration removes a great deal of suspense, and none of the characters Bertie meets along the way are built up enough that the audience is particularly concerned about their individual survival. Presumably, many off the scenes of Bertie encountering other people in 1900 are meant to be recreations filmed in the 1960s (which would actually be a clever way to explain away the weak acting and limited production values), but Hines does not do enough to separate them stylistically from the "found footage". And he misses what is probably the most important thing to remember when making a faux-documentary: Always think about the person holding the camera, making him a character or at least explaining why he would be there.

That's a shame, because there is some ingenuity on display in terms of how Hines and company create and assemble the final product's various sources. The credits imply a lot of practical effects work was done, and the miniatures used for the tripods are actually a fairly cool design. New footage and stock footage are combined fairly well, and the photoshop job done on various stills and the full-sized models for others often isn't bad. There's a mildly amusing bit or two after the end credits. The idea, at least, is there, just not the skill to make it work.

There will probably be a contemporary found-footage version of "War of the Worlds" (or a similar alien invasion story) soon enough, and in all likelihood it will be better than this. The ambition here is nice, but I really do hope these filmmakers move on to something else rather than figuring the third time's the charm.

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