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NEW YORK (CNS) -- On Halloween Eve 1938, the CBS radio series "The Mercury Theatre on the Air," hosted by and starring storied actor and director Orson Welles, broadcast its legendary adaptation of British novelist H.G. Wells' 1898 novel "The War of the Worlds."
Subsequent accounts of the widespread panic the program inspired were overblown. But its realistic-sounding presentation did prompt many listeners -- made jittery by real-life events in the lead-up to World War II -- to believe that Martians had indeed invaded Grover's Mill, New Jersey.
Viewers of "War of the Worlds," the post-apocalyptic limited series reimagining of Wells' classic that premieres on Epix on Sunday, Feb. 16, 9-10 p.m. EST, may not be so easily led down the garden path. Instead, the eight-part show, which will continue in the same time slot through Sunday, April 5, may simply inspire them to reach for the remote.
Those who stick with this version will encounter an inordinately high body count, gory mayhem, a graphic suicide and multiple shootouts. While most of the sexual content is, by contrast, fairly mild, a backstory involving an incestuous rape pushes the boundaries on this score as well. So only adults inured to harsh material should tune in for this sci-fi dustup.
BAFTA Award-winning British screenwriter Howard Overman ("Misfits") created and wrote the drama, which first aired in France on Canal+ in October 2019. Its story opens in the French Alps where astrophysicist Catherine Durand (Lea Drucker) detects a signal from space that she suspects augurs an imminent attack by alien invaders.
This assault takes the form of electromagnetic waves that create an effect resembling nuclear mushroom clouds and instantly spell death for most in their path. By way of follow-up, the aliens unleash an army of killer bots -- think gigantic, metallic, headless spiders.
A NATO military unit headed by Col. Mokrani (Adel Bencherif) arrives at Catherine's observatory to provide protection. But Catherine remains concerned about the safety of her substance abuse-troubled sister, Sophia (Emilie de Preissac), the stormy nature of the siblings' past relationship notwithstanding.
Among the other survivors whose fates the show follows are London-based electromagnetism expert Professor Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne), his ex-wife, Helen Brown (Elizabeth McGovern), and their missing son, Dan (Michael Marcus).
As Bill and Helen pursue their search for Dan, they join forces with upper-middle-class mom Sarah Gresham (Natasha Little), her young-adult daughter, Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones), and adolescent son, Tom (Ty Tennant).
Sarah's husband, Jonathan (Stephen Campbell Moore), who was in France at the time of the invasion, is determined to reunite with his family. Thirty-something Chloe Dumont (Stephane Caillard) and her 15-year-old son, Sacha (Mathieu Torloting), become Jonathan's traveling companions. Sacha, like Emily, has the unusual ability to hear the aliens as they communicate with one another.
Viewers will struggle to stay with "War of the Worlds," despite the presence of the eminently interesting Byrne and McGovern -- the latter far removed from her Cora Crawley persona on "Downton Abbey." The script, moreover, reflects contemporary society's misguided values where sexuality is concerned, especially through its depiction of Catherine's relationship with Mokrani.
As might be expected, there are some genuinely chilling moments in the show. Still, so much of the action follows a repetitive pattern -- a monster is coming, run, shoot or hide! -- that it soon becomes tiresome. In the end, disheartened TV fans may decide that this "War of the Worlds" is not worth the fight.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.