Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds - Alive on Stage! The New Generation: Film Review

Late 1970s concept album reborn as rock-opera concert documentary.

Family-friendly sci-fi stage spectacular transcends bizarre casting and clunky special effects.

The mother of all alien-invasion thrillers, The War of the Worlds has proved to be a durably scary fairytale for more than a century. First published by the visionary British science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells in 1898, the endlessly adaptable yarn about malevolent Martians colonizing Earth later inspired a notorious Orson Welles radio drama in 1938. A natural big-screen spectacle, the novel was once optioned by Cecil B. DeMille and went on to spawn multiple film adaptations, most recently Steven Spielberg’s contemporary 2005 update starring Tom Cruise. In addition, countless extra-terrestrial blockbusters have paid indirect homage, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Independence Day.

A 1978 concept album that later became an arena-sized live show, Jeff Wayne’s bombastic rock-opera treatment of the novel proved phenomenally successful – chiefly in the New York-born composer’s adopted homeland of Britain, but also in Ireland, continental Europe and Australia. Wayne belatedly launched a stage musical version in 2006, but he returned for a six-week European tour last year with a retooled production, expanded plot and fresh cast. Filmed at London’s cavernous O2 Arena in December 2012, this straight concert documentary has a readymade audience in Britain, where it begins a limited cinema run next week. But in territories where the album has a more cultish following, such as the US, home entertainment formats seem the most likely launch platform.

As bloated as its comically overlong title, this latest live remake is preposterous and enjoyable in roughly equal measure. Wayne takes centre stage, conducting a 45-strong army of musicians, including a full orchestra and a rock band sprinkled with veteran 1970s session players whose shared credits include David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Now lightly updated with an extra sheen of pulsing electronics, Wayne’s galloping disco-rock score still packs a punch, even if the more anodyne easy-listening passages feel slightly incongruous for an apocalyptic tale of mass interplanetary slaughter.

The freshly added scenes are little more than superfluous padding, chiefly a beefed-up romantic subplot which adds little to the main narrative. The slimy, skull-faced Martians also appear on a billboard-sized backdrop screen in new CGI sequences, which mostly look laughably clunky by modern Hollywood standards. The stage set is the real star here, notably a giant Martian tripod monster which towers over the stage, spitting real fire at the audience.

By necessity, the 2006 stage show used artfully tweaked footage of the late screen legend Richard Burton, who narrated the original album, to portray the Wells-surrogate narrator George Herbert. This time, a virtual Liam Neeson plays Herbert, both in filmed backdrop footage and as a holographic projection who interacts with live actors onstage. Which is technically impressive, but a bizarrely convoluted gimmick considering Neeson is very much alive.

Presumably the producers could not afford to book the Irish star for a full six-week tour, in which case why not consider other actors instead? Especially as Herbert’s “sung thoughts” on a handful of numbers are provided not by Neeson but by the Scottish pop-soul singer Marti Pellow, who appears sporadically in person, dressed in the same clothes. This clumsy and distracting split-personality trick was unavoidable in the original Burton production, but could surely have been eliminated this time by hiring a leading man with half-decent vocal skills. Or even Russell Crowe.

A writer with progressive socialist leanings, Wells penned The War of the Worlds at the height of the British Empire, intending it to be at least partly an allegorical critique of Britain’s colonialist policies. Wayne has argued this theme remains universally relevant today, and yet he keeps the original story’s steam-age setting intact. There is no War-on-Terror subtext here, as there was in Spielberg’s post 9/11 movie. Nor are there even modernised costumes or set designs, as in latterday revivals of comparable rock operas such as The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Even with additional CGI effects, Wayne’s latest reworking of his cash-cow concept album remains a disappointingly safe, politically neutral, old-school period piece.

But if we can forgive these many small irritants, The War of the Worlds works fine as solid piece of sense-swamping, tub-thumping, old-school family entertainment, all efficiently shot in immersive hi-def detail by director Nick Morris. Some of the stage-trained players look hammy in close-up but untrained actor Ricky Wilson, the singer with UK indie-rockers Kaiser Chiefs, gives a particularly rousing performance as a soldier driven half-mad by the Martian devastation wrought on London. As pure spectacle, this steam-powered pyrotechnic carnival still has some of the innocent gee-whizz appeal of a vintage Pink Floyd or Kiss concert. Clearly, in Wayne’s world, the 1970s goes on forever.

Venue: London press screening, April 2

Production company: New Generation Production Team

Producer: Dione Orrom

Cast: Jeff Wayne, Liam Neeson, Ricky Wilson, Jason Donovan, Kerry Ellis, Marti Pellow

Director: Nick Morris

Editor: Nick Morris

Sales agent: More2Screen

Rated PG, 118 minutes

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