PORTLAND, Maine — When H.G. Wells’ classic novel “War of the Worlds” was adapted for radio in 1938, its news broadcast format famously fooled many listeners into believing Martians actually were invading Earth.
That mistaken history is essentially what Brunswick filmmaker and artist Christian Matzke is running with. Matzke, his wife, Sarah, and Portland artist Graham Meyer are collaborating on the art exhibit “Forgotten Wars,” which opens at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, at Sanctuary Tattoo & Art Gallery at 31 Forest Ave.
The exhibit is organized like a military museum, in part imagining a united Earth retaliatory attack on Mars, the red planet often assumed in pre- Rover days to be teeming with violent, Machiavellian aliens. Meyer took on a similarly revised history, but back here on Earth, where he produced artifacts from the so-called 1913 Lantern Annexation of the Industrial Empire of the East, a supposed earlier war between Western allies and Japan.
For the interplanetary portion of “Forgotten Wars,” Matzke built anti-Martian firearms, early 20th century-styled recruitment posters, a space-traveling soldier’s uniform and — the piece de resistance — a massive drop pod in which people can actually fit and imagine jettisoning to Mars.
The pod, which took two years to piece together and four people to move from the back of a moving truck and into Sanctuary Tattoo on Thursday, is fashioned from an old medical capsule and festooned with brass dials and gaskets.
“Wells described the Martians as being a vastly superior technological army,” Matzke said Thursday afternoon. “So if [humans] attack with one large transport vessel, the Martians would just blow it out of the sky. The idea here is that individual soldiers descend on Mars in drop pods instead. Maybe you lose a third of your forces, but two-thirds slip by.”
The exhibit is not simply a haphazard collection of Steam Punk-style assemblage sculptures, however. The Matzkes thought through the timeline of the retaliatory attack, the military strategy in play, the hazards and the technology humans might have employed to bring the fight to Mars.
Specifically, this “forgotten” return volley took place in 1905 (Wells’ novel was published in 1898), when Earth and Mars were at their closest proximity in years. The two planets would not return to the same proximity for another two years after the counterattack, Matzke said, so the brave soldiers launched to the red soils would have to survive — and take out a slate of strategic interplanetary cannons — for a good 730 days or so.
Sarah Matzke, who spent a year in Los Angeles studying at a top special effects and makeup school, dressed up some “returning soldiers” for portraits depicting wounds inflicted by Martian weaponry and alien diseases caught on the distant battleground.
The trio of artists — with help from local film crew members Jon Dearnley and Michael Best — went so far as to produce short promotional videos in the style of grainy old war support films.
For Christian Matzke, the imagined second part to “War of the Worlds,” which has spurred spin-offs and revisions for more than a century, was more than just an excuse to make some cool-looking guns.
With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks looming, Matzke said the exhibit helped him symbolically grapple with complicated world affairs.
“It’s a sequel to ‘War of the Worlds,’ which I’ve read a few times, but after 9-11, it kind of took on a different resonance,” he said. “I would describe myself as a fairly liberal thinker, and I’ve always been against a jingoistic ‘us versus them’ mindset, but 9-11 kind of challenged that. I’ve had to think about, ‘What if there was a war that was clear-cut, black and white?’ This is a way for me as a liberal to work through what I would call some relatively conservative feelings.”