Martians fight to halt Cruise control

The story of the War of the Worlds has captivated people for more than a century – refashioned in innovative ways from Orson Welles’s terrifying radio broadcasts to Jeff Wayne’s 1970s musical retelling. But, asks James Goffin, can two of Hollywood’s biggest names bring anything new to the story?

It is now a story that seems commonplace, and the stuff of dozens of black-and-white B movies, but, as with many of his stories, HG Wells was ahead of his time when he wrote War of the Worlds.

Wells was inspired to write the 1898 story of a Martian invasion of earth, centred on the Home Counties, by the close conjunction of earth and the Red Planet, and exciting scientific reports of newly found “channels” on the surface – mistranslated from their Italian origins as “canals”. The reports soon sparked talk of life on other planets.

Back on earth, there were also growing rumours of war in Europe, with the increasing mechanisation of the military promising death on a new scale.

Wells united these two strands in an explosive story that prophesised lasers and biological warfare while apparently taking a pop at the propensity for the colonial Europeans to use sheer force to dominate others.

The power of the story was undiminished 40 years later when it was revived for a radio broadcast by the ever-controversial Orson Welles.

Welles updated the story, shifting it from Victorian England to contemporary America for broadcast as one of a series of weekly radio plays.

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But his real innovation came in the format he chose: rather than a straight production, the story was told through a series of fake news broadcasts that appeared to interrupt normal programming.

The result was pandemonium. Listeners scanning the airwaves were unaware the bulletins were fictional, causing hundreds of Americans to flee the New Jersey setting.

Others rushed to the scene – some brandishing firearms and apparently opening fire on a farmer's water tower they took to be a Martian machine.

With police on hand to try to control events with sirens and floodlights, latecomers were confronted with exactly the scenes described on the radio.

More recently the book was again reinterpreted, but this time as a rock musical.

Musician Jeff Wayne was responsible for a 1976 double album, featuring Richard Burton narrating. The album – recently reissued – quickly became a cult classic and charted in 22 countries worldwide.

Its haunting melodies and catchy lyrics are still well known today, with dance remixes of the songs bringing the material to a fresh audience.

The latest retelling, however, is a cinematic one from director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Cruise.

The film opens tomorrow, although there are special preview screenings tonight, and is expected to be one of the summer's biggest blockbusters.

The action has been shifted to modern-day America, with Cruise starring as Ray Ferrier, a divorced dockworker and less-than-perfect father.

Whereas the previous narrators have been solitary, Cruise is joined by his ex-wife, her new husband and his two children in battling the Tripods.

Despite winning a 12A certificate, the film carries a warning that it contains “sustained menace, threat and moderate horror”.

Spielberg said: “I thought now would be a good time to send War of the Worlds crashing down around everybody's ears.

“This is not one of my sweet, cuddly, benign alien stories.

“You do not want to run into these aliens. I just thought it would be fun to make a really scary movie with really scary aliens, which I had never done before.”

Spielberg is known to be a fan of the story, and owns one of the last remaining original scripts from the Orson Welles radio broadcast.

“He had planned to make the film as far back as the 1990s, and originally envisaged the film Deep Impact as a retelling of the story, before it veered off in a different direction.

That this version got made is testament to Cruise and Spielberg's personal interest and influence. The production was set up in just a few weeks after other projects fell through, and the shoot took just 72 days – leading some critics to question whether the human race will be overtaken not just by aliens but by special effects.

A spokesman for Ster Century in Norwich said the cinema was devoting just under half its screens to the film to provide hourly showings, and that showings tomorrow – the first full day of release – were expected to sell out.

Tom Cruise's and Steven Spielberg's last pairing, Minority Report, did well both critically and at the box office.

Following the slightly lukewarm reaction to this summer's first blockbuster – Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins – they will be hoping War of the Worlds pulls off the same trick.

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