Epix Presents Slow Dirge to the End of the War of the Worlds

Being a longtime sci-fi and horror fan, I have long had an affinity for War of the Worlds in its many iterations from the original H.G. Wells novel to the Orson Welles broadcast to Steven Spielberg’s highly-underrated 2005 version. A lot of creative voices have used the Wells template of an alien invasion to tell their own stories, which is basically what the international production premiering on Epix this Sunday does. Outside of the concept of a cataclysmic invasion by aliens, it has very little in common with Wells or even other variations on this tale. If anything, this take on “War of the Worlds” feels like it wouldn’t exist without AMC’s hit “The Walking Dead” as it focuses on the survivors of an apocalyptic event. This isn’t a bad idea thematically, but the approach by Howard Overman (“Misfits”) is so joyless and even cruel that it becomes a dirge. The solid series premiere ends in a flurry of action and divided characters that it promises an interesting tapestry approach to the end of the world. Four episodes later, after witnessing murdered children, grieving parents, and a mutilated police officer floating to the tune of one of my favorite Nick Cave songs, I threw in the towel. The end of the world doesn’t need to be fun, but there needs to be a reason for the suffering, and I can’t find it here.

“War of the Worlds” starts by introducing us to a cadre of characters throughout France, including a divorced father (Gabriel Byrne), his ex-wife (Elizabeth McGovern), and a scientist (Lea Drucker) at an observatory who knows a thing or two about what we’ve been doing in outer space. For example, when her team picks up a bizarre signal in the premiere, she knows that the signal is the same as one we sent out looking for signs of intelligent life long ago. Has something responded? By the end of the episode, the answer to that question will be affirmative for the entire planet as metal balls crash into the earth, preceding an extinction-level event in which a signal is sent out that basically fries the human brain and destroys all forms of communication. Only a select group of people who are underground or otherwise protected—an elevator will apparently do—survive the first wave, leaving a sense that a vast majority of the population died before they even realized what was going on.

Of course, the survivors largely look for safety and try to reconnect with loved ones, but the next few episodes do offer classic “TWD”-style questions. Would you stop to help someone else on your way to find out if your family was still alive? What if it meant putting what could be the only family you have left in jeopardy? The cast of unconnected characters eventually come together, sometimes literally, as a picture of survival and the questions that come with it. To be fair, this is a strong cast, including Natasha Little as a mother now trying to keep two children alive while she looks for safety and the charismatic Bayo Gbadamosi as a refugee who ends up gravely injured.

Everyone here is up the challenge dramatically and the show looks impressive in terms of production value, but it’s all so dour and depressing. Of course, the end of the world should be intense, and there’s some credit to be given for leaning into this situation's reality, but even an action sequence that quickens the pulse or a bit of physical humor could alleviate the monotony that quickly settles bone-deep into “War of the Worlds.” A show about metal alien dogs—the version of attackers in this take really reminded me of the creature in the “Metalhead” episode of “Black Mirror” by the way—should be at least occasionally fun. The problem with monotony is it becomes impossible to care. Characters become disposable; their plight becomes superficial through the repetition. There’s a difference between something that’s intense and something that’s just brutally bleak. It almost feels like this “War” isn’t worth winning.

Five episodes screened for review.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also the Editor of Magill's Cinema Annual, a writer for The New York Times, Vulture, The AV Club, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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