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Posted on Sat, Jun. 25, 2005
 
 R E L A T E D   L I N K S 
 •  View the movie trailer for 'War of the Worlds'

SPACE INVADERS


TIMELESS 'WAR OF THE WORLDS' CAPTIVATES EARTHLINGS



Mercury News

There's no stopping the alien invaders.

For decades, adaptations of H.G. Wells' ``War of the Worlds'' have introduced new audiences to the sci-fi classic about extraterrestrials with a scorched-earth policy. Steven Spielberg has reworked the 1898 novel into a massive summer release, starring Tom Cruise, that opens Wednesday.

The A-list director more accustomed to a kinder, gentler E.T. is not alone. Two other ``War of the Worlds'' versions have landed this month: a British production faithful to the book's plot about Martians attacking Victorian England; and a straight-to-video, contemporary version starring C. Thomas Howell and Jake Busey. An all-computer generated imagery (CGI) adaptation is scheduled for 2008.

``It's timeless,'' says Tony Wright, moderator of the Web site dedicated to all things ``War of the Worlds'' (www.waroftheworlds online.com). ``The fans would say that its central messages warning against complacency and empire are just as relevant today as when H.G. Wells published them.''

Whether fans want to delve into subtext -- or just see a big ol' laser beam melt a tank -- continue to expect new adaptions of the ``War of the Worlds'' for decades to come. Here are some of the better-known versions.

H.G. Wells' novel

(1898)

In 1894, three years before Herbert George Wells published the story in serial form in Pearson's Magazine, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing ``canali,'' or channels, on Mars. When the term was mistranslated as ``canals,'' it sparked speculation about life on the planet. Wells took that bit of news 17 steps further by writing about a Martian invasion of Earth. In 1898, it was released as a novel.

Attacked: England

Wells described octopus-like creatures that traveled the British countryside on 100-foot-tall tripods. Most of the novel is narrated by a man from Surrey, England, whose almost journalistic account details how the Martians kill everyone in sight with a lethal heat ray and toxic black smoke. Humanity seems doomed until the invading force is killed off by bacteria.

The World War overtones

The reunification of Germany was seen as a threat to the security of the British Empire in the late 1800s. Several prescient novels predicting a European war, including George Chesney's ``The Battle of Dorking'' (1871), inspired the semi-documentary style of ``War of the Worlds.''

Radio broadcast

(1938)

Orson Welles pulled off one of the great stunts in broadcasting history by presenting ``War of the Worlds'' as if it were a live, breaking news story, on ``The Mercury Theatre on the Air'' on CBS.

Attacked: New Jersey

A 23-year-old Welles set the drama in Grover's Mill, N.J. in 1938. He detailed the horrors of an alien invasion so convincingly that listeners who had missed the introduction of the show believed the broadcast was real. Radio and police stations were flooded with phone calls and families packed up cars and fled their homes. The day after the Oct. 30 broadcast, a haggard yet contrite Orson Welles issued an apology.

The Welles controversies

Welles' radio play's documentary style, credited with fooling much of the radio audience, in fact honored the tone of the original novel. However, H.G. Wells was reportedly unhappy with the liberties the radio star took with the book. Three years later, Welles was in the thick of another brouhaha over a film inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst: ``Citizen Kane.''

The first movie

(1953)

Producer George Pal helped create some of the most memorable sci-fi movies of his era, from ``When Worlds Collide'' to ``The Time Machine,'' but his ``War of the Worlds,'' directed by Byron Haskin, stands as perhaps his greatest achievement.

Attacked: L.A.

Pal and Haskin cast the Martian invasion in California, with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson unable to stop the destruction of the Los Angeles City Hall. The aliens blast away in swan-like ships that gracefully float toward their next target. And just as Bill Pullman and crew struggled to stop the extraterrestrial invaders in ``Independence Day,'' the military in ``War of the Worlds'' find that nuclear weaponry is as effective as a spitball.

Cold War overtones

Like so many of the attacking alien movies of the 1950s, ``War of the Worlds'' is a thinly veiled Cold War metaphor. In one scene, the godless Martians, who hail from the red planet, attack residents who take refuge in a church.

Fun fact: The name of Barry's character, Dr. Clayton Forrester, was adopted some 40 years later by the buffoonish villain in TV's ``Mystery Science Theater 3000.''

Musical version

(1978)

``The War of the Worlds''

by Jeff Wayne.

Richard Burton and Thin Lizzy lead singer Phil Lynott -- together!

A novel musical

What seems like one of the strangest pairings ever is actually part of a smartly cast musical production that stays close to the original novel. David Essex producer Jeff Wayne shepherded the project and enlisted the likes of Burton as the narrator, Lynott as a parson and Essex as an artillery man. Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues also contributed two songs, including ``Forever Autumn,'' a minor radio hit in the United States.

Big sales

The double album was such a success in England that it remained on charts for six years. A German version, narrated by Curd Jergens, was also released.

They kept coming

Wayne also produced a musical version of ``Spartacus,'' starring Anthony Hopkins and a then-unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones, in 1992. In 2008, he will release an all-CGI movie based upon the novel that uses the music from his 1978 musical version.

TV series

(1988-90)

Picking up 35 years after the movie left off, the remains of the Martians have been socked away at an American government research station. When terrorists attack a storage depot housing the bodies, they release radiation and unintentionally resuscitate the extraterrestrials in a nightmare even Homeland Security couldn't envision.

Attacked: the story

The syndicated show revived the swan-like craft from the original movie. As the series continued, its connection to earlier versions grew increasingly tenuous. It was later revealed that the ``Martians'' were in fact not from Mars. The show resorted to the usual cost-saving tricks, such as having the Martians take over human bodies, which cuts down on makeup and special effects expenses.

Fun fact: Former ``Star Trek'' writer and producer D.C. Fontana contributed a script for an episode.

Spielberg movie

(2005)

Forget about anything Martian. Stephen Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp have revamped the story, enlisted invaders from outside of the solar system and no doubt encouraged co-star Dakota Fanning the crank up the waterworks.

Tom Cruise version

The man behind ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind'' and ``E.T.'' has also darkened the story. The hero, played by Tom Cruise, is a divorced father of two who is forced by circumstance to do the right thing. Koepp has said in interviews that the new story is inspired by the war in Iraq.

The postmodern overtones

The movie also has its fun acknowledging past versions. Like Orson Welles' adaptation, this one is set in New Jersey. Like the novel, the film has the invaders traveling in death ray-shooting tripods. Also lifted from the original is Ogilvy, an astronomer, played by Tim Robbins, who spots the Martian cylinders.

Though the director has in many ways stayed truer to the novel than the 1953 movie, he gives the earlier film a nod with the cameos by stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.

'War of the Worlds'

*

Opens: Wednesday

Rated: PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images

Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: David Koepp

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes


Contact Mark de la Viña at mdelavina@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5914.

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