The War of the Worlds review: A lavish adaptation let down by its need to be socially relevant

Ed Cumming
Eleanor Tomlinson and Rupert Graves in 'The War of the Worlds': BBC/Mammoth Screen

They’ll keep making The War of the Worlds until aliens do actually invade earth. HG Wells’ 1898 novel is one of those science-fiction ur-texts that has to be redone every few years so we can keep track of what audiences and filmmakers are worried about. The original book is a Victorian fable about the perils of imperialism, an exciting story with a simple but effective, if slightly unsatisfactory, twist ending.

For all the Martians’ technological superiority, they fail to anticipate the microbes that eventually bring the aliens down when they try to leave their tripods. The moral anxieties change with the adaptations. Orson Welles’​ 1938 radio play, against a backdrop of Nazi aggression, famously spooked some of its listeners into thinking it was real. Stephen Spielberg’s mega-budget 2005 version had a contemporary setting, with an emphasis on parenthood and the preciousness of the human relationship with the environment.

This new three-part BBC War of the Worlds is that unusual thing: a period sci-fi. Between this and His Dark Materials, Sunday evenings have a lot of waistcoats. Even more curiously, The War of the Worlds is set in Edwardian England, a decade after the novel. The change gives extra resonance to the political backdrop of tension with Russia, but it also adds plausibility to its emotional subplot. It’s a moot point how much women's-lib authenticity is really necessary in a story about giant tripods destroying the planet.

The important thing is that it permits the casting of Eleanor Tomlinson, flame-haired Demelza off Poldark, as the lead. In the book, the hero’s family are squirrelled away early on, to let the chaps get on with battling the Martians. Here, Tomlinson’s character Amy is the star. Few actors working today are as good at stopping Dad from changing the channel.

At the start of the first episode, it is 1905, and Amy and George (Rafe Spall) are living in scandal in Woking. George, a journalist, has left his unhappy marriage to his cousin, which has been so scandalous at work that the newspaper’s owner will no longer give him bylines. Amy is a frustrated would-be researcher, who quickly befriends a scientist, Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle), who may or may not be gay. All very modern. This jamboree is interrupted by the arrival of a large meteorite, which lands in the woods and is prodded and poked until it flies into the air and starts combusting people with invisible heat rays. George and Amy just manage to escape.

You might have thought the Martians laying waste to Surrey would temporarily occupy their thoughts, but amid all the carnage they don’t neglect their subplot. “I went to see my wife yesterday, to ask her to sign the divorce papers,” George says, while an extraterrestrial super-intelligence immolates the village around him. Talk about a stiff upper lip.

The sets are lavish enough, even if the special effects are more Doctor Who than Doctor Strange and we are given minimal monster time. Tomlinson and Spall do a reasonable job of suggesting a relationship amid the destruction, and can hardly be blamed for the hoops they are made to jump through.

The real war here is not between humans and aliens, but between a classic tale and the perceived liberal expectations of audiences in 2019, back-projected onto an early 20th-century setting. It’s a minor subplot of a broader cultural moment in which every adaptation must address current sensitivities, even when it feels laboured or it sits badly with the story. Sometimes it’s valid, but often it seems to entail a sledgehammer when a needle would do, and it dulls the drama. If the Martians are watching, they might let us get on with it.