War of the Worlds: Rialto’s new down-to-earth take on alien invasion

REVIEW: Two years ago, it was Rafe Spall, Eleanor Tomlinson and Robert Carlyle battling invading martians in Edwardian England, this time it’s Gabriel Byrne, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Elizabeth McGovern taking on extra-terrestrials in contemporary West London and Northern France.

While still based on H.G. Wells’ seminal 1898 novel, this War of the Worlds (which debuts at 8.30pm on December 28 on Sky TV’s Rialto Channel) probably has more in common with Apple TV+’s Invasion, Cruise and Spielberg’s 2005 cinematic version or Noah Wyle’s Falling Skies, than traditional takes on the story.

The scene and tone-setting opening episode of the first season’s eight (production has just recently finished on a third series), flits between the two locations, as we meet all the characters we just know are going to survive the initial attack, and we’ll have to invest our emotions and time in.

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Screenwriter Howard Overman (Future Man, The One) makes sure we know all of them are flawed, fallible or facing difficulties – Byrne’s neurobiologist is still obsessed with his ex-wife Helen (McGovern), Edgar-Jones’ Emily is blind, reckless and her father is having an affair with another woman, and Catherine Durand’s relations (Lea Drucker) with her daughter are clearly strained.

It’s Durand who first raises the alarm about the threat from above. Employed at the IRAM Observatory in the French Alps, she has also been part of the Meti initiative sending music into space in the hope of establishing contact.

Now, having detected a sound emanating from an exo-planet near the star Ross 128, it appears they have succeeded.

Gabriel Byrne plays neurobiologist Bill Ward in War of the Worlds.


Gabriel Byrne plays neurobiologist Bill Ward in War of the Worlds.

But, after just a tick under 24 hours, the signal abruptly stops, almost immediately replaced by satellites picking up a vast “army” of small objects heading our way.

As houses begin to shake and panic begins to rise, all civilian aircraft are grounded, schools closed and people urged to stay at home (naturally the response is rioting in the streets).

Military investigations reveal the now embedded objects are spherical, non-porous and boast a large electro-magnetic field. And while boffins scratch their heads as to why there are so many of these “probes”, mostly located in areas boasting large populace, and a test-drop of a bomb leaves nary a scratch, Bill makes a concerning discovery.

The pulses being emitted from the objects appear designed to interfere with our biology. If ramped up, they could cause seizures and instant death, unless people head underground, or “encase themselves in metal”. Urging his son Dan (Michael Marcus), a government official, to get the word out, Bill races to Helen’s apartment building, desperately hoping he can get her to safety in time.

War of the Worlds offers a understated, character-driven approach to alien invasion.


War of the Worlds offers a understated, character-driven approach to alien invasion.

Very much a bilingual tale (French and English) that aims to spend as much time on domestic dramas as it does on the sci-fi, War reminds one of 1970s British drama Survivors, the BBC’s incomplete adaptation of John Christopher’s similarly themed The Tripods and more recent series The Missing and Baptiste, with their understated, character-driven approach.

While Byrne (The Usual Suspects) is definitely no Tcheky Karyo (the compassionate and moral centre of the latter two series) when it comes to intensity and nuance, he’s a compelling enough lead in terms of helping the audience get swept up into the scenario.

David Martijn’s (Dutch crime-thriller Red Lights) synth-led score also adds an extra chill to the building tension, while the slow-burn of what might come next makes a nice change from the usual invasion-survival-revenge cycle which dominates most contemporary iterations of this kind of story.

War of the Worlds debuts on Sky TV’s Rialto Channel at 8.30pm on December 28.

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