An eclectic group of characters must face their own fears and flaws – as well as aliens – in The War of the Worlds, a modern update of HG Wells’ iconic story for France’s Canal+ and Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa.
For five seasons until 2013, British drama Misfits told the story of a group of young offenders brought together after they each gain superpowers following a strange electrical storm – ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.
Now, Misfits creator Howard Overman has applied the same concept to HG Wells’ classic 1897 story The War of the Worlds, in which aliens invade the Earth, leading to widespread devastation and destruction.
Like the 2005 Tom Cruise movie of the same name, but in contrast to an upcoming BBC adaptation set at the time Wells first published the story, Overman has placed The War of the Worlds in the present day to ask his characters what they would be willing to do to survive.
The eight-part series begins when astronomers detect a transmission from another galaxy, confirming the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Within days, however, mankind is all but wiped out, with only pockets of humanity left in an eerily deserted world.
The drama follows the destinies of a handful of survivors, all dealing with the sudden exodus, the loss of their loved ones and all that once gave meaning to their lives as they try to understand the reasons behind this unfathomable invasion.
Described as a unique marriage of human drama and science fiction, the show uses Wells’ story as a starting point before Overman takes it in an entirely new direction to explore human emotion during an unprecedented event, asking how people’s relationships and circumstances change when they are faced with the end of the world.
“I wanted to explore the idea that, just like HG Wells’ aliens, humanity has an almost limitless capacity to destroy those it sees as inferior or different,” Overman says. “This new interpretation of Wells’ cult novel focuses on the subtleties of human relationships, between, say, parents and children, couples, or complete strangers. The alien attack and its repercussions bring out the characters’ deepest vulnerabilities as they try to navigate this dangerous new world.”
Intriguingly, for large parts of the series, the alien is out there but can only be seen through snatched glimpses, allowing viewers’ own minds to perceive the horror confronting the characters.
But there are also lighter moments, with the extreme events facing the planet also lending themselves to stories of love, courage and hope, as well as themes of prejudice, responsibility and guilt.
“Throughout the episodes, the series juxtaposes these contrasting ideas as the characters become increasingly complex,” continues Overman, who produces with Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps (both Merlin, Atlantis). “Cinematic and full of the mystery and intrigue that are found in the best works of science fiction, this series is both character- and action-driven.
“Our War of the Worlds is essentially a story about humanity. If aliens were to attack tomorrow, and life as we know it were destroyed, what would we do to survive? What would it teach us about other people – and, above all, about ourselves?”
The bilingual series, with characters speaking English and French, was suitably shot on both sides of the English Channel, with two units simultaneously filming four episodes at once over a period of 16 weeks. Actors jumped between scenes from different episodes, while directors Gilles Coulier (De Dag) and Richard Clark (Versailles) guided and supported them to ensure continuity across all eight episodes.
Filming took place in the Welsh cities of Cardiff and Newport as well as in London, France’s Charleville-Mézières and the Alps. Real settings such as the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy were also used for the drama, which is produced by Urban Myth Films in partnership with AGC Television and distributed by StudioCanal.
Among those battling the aliens are Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Adel Bencherif, Stephen Campbell Moore, Natasha Little, Stéphane Caillard, Guillaume Gouix and Daisy Edgar Jones.
Byrne (The Usual Suspects) plays Bill Ward, a committed eminent neuroscientist who will do anything to win back the woman he loves, McGovern’s Helen Brown, Bill’s ex-wife whose long-held convictions are rocked by the out-of-this-world events.
Byrne agrees with Overman when he says aliens are not the main focus of the series, which instead tells the story of humans in extreme conditions and deprived of the comfort and safety they used to take for granted. “As a scientist, Bill tries to gather together all the indecipherable clues from another world, to try to come up with a solution,” he says of his character. “As a man, he does everything he can to get back together with his ex-wife, despite the chaos they are living in.”
Describing his role as “very physical and emotionally intense,” Byrne says the project was more challenging than he anticipated. “I had to adapt to the specifics of this series – the way it was filmed, mainly, with two teams working simultaneously. We were constantly switching from one to the other, going back and forth between film sets. Under those conditions, it’s a challenge to maintain continuity, both in action and emotion.”
As McGovern explains, the series opens when Bill is trying to repair his and Helen’s marriage, with the alien invasion then throwing them back together.
“What I really loved about this project was Howard’s desire to talk about the destinies of ordinary people faced with a catastrophe that threatens life on Earth as we know it.” the Downton Abbey star explains. “He skilfully depicts our priorities, who we are, and the meaning of our relationships in a world that may be ending. That’s what I liked. He’s really interested in the characters. For me, that is far more fascinating than watching aliens from outer space attack us.”
Similarly, Drucker (Le Bureau des Légendes) was enticed by the opportunity to play an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. “I have never worked in sci-fi. I like the realistic approach – that’s how the directors wanted it. We’re not superheroes fighting aliens,” she says. “Of course, there’s a lot of action, but the whole story is very thoughtful.”
Her character, Catherine Durand, is a scientist working at an observatory in the Alps, a loner driven by a desire to discover something extraordinary. But when she’s plunged into a state of war, she’s completely overwhelmed.
To prepare for the series, Drucker studied archival footage and images of war, and also visited the Tate Britain gallery in London to look at photographs by renowned war photojournalist Don McCullin. “To me, The War of the Worlds is first and foremost about war,” she adds. “It’s a humanistic series, but also a very harsh series. The world it depicts is rough and brutal, and the aliens aren’t the only reason for it. These extraterrestrials force us to question who we are as humans.”
But while the spectacle of the alien invasion will undoubtedly take centre stage, it’s the challenges the characters face in a modern setting that the creators hope will focus the minds of viewers.
“I think this story is particularly relevant today,” says McGovern. “Because of climate change and all that’s happening in the world now, we’ve lost confidence in our dominant position. We live with this constant anxiety: Is life on Earth about to end? What does that mean for us? What does that mean for us as a species? What’s really important? What isn’t?
“By placing this contemporary reality in the imaginary context of science fiction, The War of the Worlds invites us to think about our lives and what they mean today.”