To mark the anniversary of Orson Welles’ Halloween prank of broadcasting a ‘live’ report of Martians invading Earth in 1938 – a clever adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds novel for radio – CBS, the network that aired the original drama aired this similarly ‘live’ TV broadcast of aliens making lethal contact with humanity, with similarly dire circumstances for the news reporters and planet as a whole.
It’s easy to dismiss this effort as some kind of disposable anniversary production, but Without Warning was produced by Mark & David Wolper and bears the same meticulous research as done for their company’s best-known historical productions – Roots (1977), The Thorn Birds (1983), and North and South (1985).
That isn’t to assume the teleplay’s strong sense of reality stemmed from the Wolpers, but there’s a great integration of contemporary and historical facts woven into a 2 hour newscast that essentially has real-life CNN news anchor Sander Vanocur and actress Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle) covering aliens pelting our planet with meteors.
The script by Peter Lance (who shares story credit with Walon Green and Jeremy Thorn) almost manages to pull off a fake newscast – as a radio show, it would be near perfect. Its structure is sound in that a freak news item – three meteor hits over three continents – becomes a possible alien contact event, which the government denies to the end, while facts from a pair of survivors suggest some strange influence is at hand. Both the French skier and a traumatized young child mutter only gibberish, and later in the drama a town’s inhabitants have completely vanished (an eerie event recalling the Biblical premise of ‘vanished’ souls and perplexed survivors in 2001’s Left Behind).
Unlike Wells’ novel and Welles’ radio drama, the aliens are never seen by any humans; what occurs are a trio of peculiar impacts in the U.S., France, and the Gobi Desert with geometric correlating geometric paths which eggheads analyze using prior histories of meteor impacts, and NASA’s own efforts to contact alien life.
Brought into the mix is novelist Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) who in a ‘live’ interview weighs the aliens vs. conspiracy nonsense quandary the newscasters are constantly analyzing, as well as ‘live’ reports from Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and the charred field in Wyoming, where the first meteor landed, and the little babble-mouthed girl was rescued by real-life reporter Bree Walker (trapped in a severely bad hair day) and her helicopter team.
Director Iscove also intercuts stock news footage to lend a sense of verisimilitude, but the clips are kept short and often ping-pong through no more than 3 international locations before we’re redirected back to the news desk. The drama also fades in and out using standard wide angle crane shots of the news set with bumper music, and the real ad breaks we viewers experienced give the teleplay further fake credibility. (After the first hour of ‘crisis reportage’ the ad bumpers are given a logo – “Asteroid: Fire from the Sky” – an animated branding idiocy pioneered by CNN, and now standard with national and whiny local stations today.)
Perhaps learning from the Welles’ broadcast which only alerted audiences of the show’s fictional nature at the beginning and near the end of the broadcast time slot, the first two moments where Vanocur delivers the newscast have superimposed “This is not an actual newscast. This is a fictional movie” warnings, and every return to the drama is preceded with a more sly warning (“Without Warning is a realistic depiction o fictional events”) – which is kind of a shame, since the producers, writers, editors, and cinematographer went to great trouble in evoking a real newscast.
What’s unsurprising for contemporary viewers is how the format of crisis reportage hasn’t changed: experts are dragged into studios or cornered on location for consult, and officials are hounded by questions in media scrums. Where the production errs is by giving the expert interviews filmic intros – the camera pans from ‘the reporter’ to clearly prepped ‘experts waiting for their visual or aural cues – and by having some reporters address leading governmental figures by their first name. (Who does that to a military figure?)
Also affecting the reality veneer is a constant sense the news items and transitions are too concise (live TV tends to be rougher, with reporters often babbling newsy verbiage to fill time before the next ad break), and the imbalance that’s occasional visible when actors pretend to be reporters for too long onscreen, adding pregnant pauses or deep though moments, and real reporters trying to act humane when their job is to restrain and just deliver facts. The latter is a problem with Bree Walker’s touchy-feely meeting with the little girl’s mother, and Vanocur’s own ‘deep thought’ moments, including a Big One that has him inexplicably figuring out the aliens’ true intentions in the drama’s last few minutes. (There’s also the greasy makeup on actor Dwier Brown meant to evoke a sweaty, panicking reporter, but now we’re just being petty here.)
Even with its faults, Without Warning is a very clever production that’s meant to poke fun and satirize the way we transmit news to the masses, and how we eat up the packaged drama. On surface, Iscove plays it straight, even keeping any visual effects to their bare essentials, but there are plenty of in-jokes.
Whereas Welles’ cut back and forth between reporters and live ballroom music programming in the first act, Iscove keeps it isolated to a few minutes, using footage of a fake a TV movie (featuring a cameo by Loni Anderson, surprised ‘without warning’ by a stalker) whose broadcast is repeatedly interrupted by Vanocur, describing incoming details from Grover’s Mill – the same location of the first outer space impact in the Welles radio drama.
And the in-jokes go beyond Welles references and the odd character name play:
- The two other places where the meteors collide are the Gobi Desert, where Steven Spielberg had Bedouins discover a ship reported missing in the Bermuda Triangle in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); and Lourdes, France, where a peasant girl had immaculate visions (and her story was dramatized in the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette).
- The little girl found by the reporters at Grover’s Mill also echoes the traumatized girl found in the wrecked remains of her family’s camper in Them! (1954), and whose initial silence (and later scream of the film’s title) ignite a drama of ‘otherworldly’ creatures whose destruction of humanity is also rooted in Man’s violent actions.
Although once available on DVD, Without Warning actually works better when there are commercials (or at least a sampling of some) to convey the sense of a real broadcast the way Orson Welles managed to pull off 56 years before on radio. (Another 'live' news teleplay, Special Bulletin, also benefitted from ad breaks in 1983.)
Dramatizations of the 1938 radio broadcast and the paranoiacs who believes Martians had arrived include the 1957 live teleplay for Studio One, The Night America Trembled, and the 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America. A more recent effort to capture a fly-on-the-wall feel during the ’38 performance was dramatized in Andrew Burashko’s 2011 play version of Welles’ War of the Worlds, using Howard Koch’s original script.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan