‘War of the Worlds’ review: Dystopia à la Française
By Mike Hale
This review contains spoilers for the first two seasons of “War of the Worlds.”
As you make your way through the cavernous emporium that television has become, brand loyalty may be your best hedge against disappointment. It can be limiting, sure. But if you know you are likely to enjoy the latest Taylor Sheridan drama or Adult Swim animated comedy, that’s valuable time saved.
There is a logo that signals happiness for me, but it’s a little farther afield. Someone in Paris has my number: For the past decade or so, a handful of my very favorite shows have begun life on the French channel Canal+.
A lot of shows from Canal+ — an ad-free subscription service analogous to HBO — don’t make it to America, and I’m sure there are plenty that I wouldn’t care for. But its programmers have a taste for atmospheric, complicated genre pieces, and over the years there has been a succession of its series that I’ve eagerly consumed: the Paris police procedural “Spiral,” the eerie supernatural-metaphysical melodrama “The Returned,” the superlative spy thriller “The Bureau.” My fixation continues with “War of the Worlds,” a particularly dark and dystopian science-fiction adventure whose third season began Monday on Epix. (Seasons of all four shows are available at Amazon Prime Video.)
“War of the Worlds” differs in being a French-English coproduction (with the Fox Networks Group) whose action, especially in recent episodes, mostly takes place in London, with English dialogue. It was created, and to this point has been written by, British TV veteran Howard Overman, best known for creating the award-winning supernatural dramedy “Misfits.”
Overman’s story has points of connection with the H.G. Wells novel he very loosely adapts: Invaders (who turn out to be physically compromised) arrive in gigantic ships and assert their dominance, while human refugees do a lot of fleeing and hunkering down. There are fewer of these refugees than Wells imagined, however. In the show’s first episode, the spacecraft that land emit a signal that kills nearly everyone on Earth, sparing only those who are underground or otherwise shielded.
The first two seasons followed increasingly smaller bands of survivors in France and England who eventually coalesced in London around Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne), a scientist whose existence the invaders were somehow aware of. The feel was clammy and claustrophobic — there was no word from the rest of the world — with a steady drip-drip-drip of horror as the humans were picked off by the mechanical attack dogs the invaders deployed. The whirring, clanking noises the robots made were an eerie signature.
But the show isn’t just a video-game-style thriller. Overman does a good job with the human relationships, which are marked by the anger, despair and pettiness the dire situation gives rise to. Characters backbite, bellyache, reluctantly pitch in and commit mundane acts of heroism in a largely believable manner, and there’s blessedly little inspirational speechmaking.
The show is also a big-idea science fiction fantasy, of course, and that is both a strength and a weakness. The delayed revelation of who and what the invaders were, and how they connected with the show’s human characters, was intriguing — which was the minimum requirement for plugging you into the show — but the science involved felt a little more fictional than usual. And there are some fundamental questions about the plot that are still unclear, and which you suspect may remain so.
If you’ve watched the first two seasons — here come the big spoilers — you know that the invaders are actually humans who have apparently traveled back in time on a mission of self-preservation, and that Bill stands in their way. And you know that the second season ended with Bill using the invaders’ technology to time travel himself, arriving before the invasion and committing a murder that would prevent the invaders from ever existing.
So Season 3 is one of those sci-fi reboots in which things never happened and the world is back to normal, except that Bill is in prison, there’s a black hole hovering over Earth (there’s that dodgy science again) and people are having visions that look a lot like memories of the invasion that didn’t happen.
The visions, presumably being experienced by people who, in the original timeline, were survivors, are a smart device for keeping the cast together — characters like the resourceful cop Zoe (Pearl Chanda), the compassionate immigrant Kariem (Bayo Gbadamosi) and the awkward French scientist Catherine (Léa Drucker), who will eventually recognize one another, and Bill. And they still have a battle to fight, since a few of the invaders, including the implacable Adina (Ania Sowinski), stowed away with Bill in the time machine and are working on building a new one.
The mood and storylines in the new season are more like those of a conventional mystery — there are police chases now — with the dramatic spice of a handful of characters knowing an earthshaking secret that they can’t talk about without being considered crazy.
It’s a great situation for Byrne, whose grumpy, weary performance as Bill drives the show. With a prison sentence as his reward for saving the world, Bill is now more completely fed up than ever, and his reaction when Zoe tells him he needs to do it again is succinct and profane. Byrne, in a way that feels more French than British, makes you understand exactly how big a bother this world-saving business is.