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War of the Worlds Review

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by Chris McEneany May 30, 2010

    War of the Worlds Review

    Folks, I covered Steven Spielberg's audience-dividing adaptation of H. G. Wells' classic SF warning, War Of The Worlds, way back when its DVD was released ... and I was pretty scathing about it. I took the side of the fraternity who couldn't abide its planet-swallowing plot-holes, fundamental narrative flaws and allegedly bogus “everyman” performance from Tom Cruise. I also found it incredibly easy to pick fault with its lack of conventional spectacle and action, and its all-too obvious 9/11 allegory. And, folks, I was wrong on almost every damn level. Now that Spielberg's highly personal take on the well-known, oft-depicted concept has arrived on Blu-ray, it is time that I set the record straight and faced up to some very big mistakes that I made first time around.

    What follows is most definitely not a simple rehash of what I wrote back then.

    In fact, it is possibly the direct opposite.

    “This is so weird ... the wind is blowing towards the storm.”

    This grungy and unexpectedly intimate evocation of Man's collapse in the wake of an alien invasion has had mixed reviews ever since its cinematic outing - those that loved the popcorn entertainment of a two-hour multiplex-and-pizza trip, and those that derided what they took to be a fumbled retake of a classic story. And if ever a big budget A-list film teetered so precariously on the tightrope between the preconceptions of the masses and the unique and singular vision of its maker, to the point where it was hugely misunderstood and wrongly derided ... then this must surely be it. I condemned it as being rushed, badly written and heavily contrived, innately false to its own narrative trajectory, woefully lacking in an effective pay-off and simply not playing by the usual Alien Invasion Movie Rulebook. However, looking now at Spielberg's remarkably low-key evocation of the harvesting of Mankind and, crucially, the hollowing-out of society's soul, as witnessed through the eyes of one dysfunctional, desperate and struggling family caught up in the devastation and swept along on a sea of human misery, I see nothing that cannot be admired.

    “Well, there's something down there ... and it's moving.”

    Blue-collar no-hoper Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is at odds with his estranged family, and his weekend custody of his kids Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is about to become the ultimate test of their emotions and push their commitment to each other to the limits when war-hungry aliens decide to smash 'n' grab the planet after a millennia of lying in wait. Lightning-riding their way to Earth, the extra-terrestrial pilots drive their monstrous machines of war up out of the ground in which they had been mothballed, and begin to tear up the town with genocidal fervour. Ray and the kids hit the road in the only non-military vehicle that still has power after the aliens effectively short-circuit humanity's capacity for communication, transport and especially retaliation. So, by car, by ferry and on-foot, the stricken trio go on a cross-country odyssey of escape and evasion and familial bonding. But with aliens on the warpath all across the cold and damp autumnal countryside, even the apparent sanctuary offered by Tim Robbins' novel-homage character, Ogilvy, proves to have a snake in the grass. As ever, Mankind appears to have the greatest to fear from itself.

    “What's all that stuff all over you?”

    Spielberg's flash-bang, hair-trigger set-piece at the intersection in town, where the enemy first arises to bring death and destruction, is as monumentally effective as any you can choose from his already outstanding back-catalogue. The sense of fear and wonder combined is palpable and convincing. As it becomes obvious that something large and probably very dangerous is on the way up, people still feel drawn towards it ... as they would do. Even when the first tripod war machine has clambered to the surface and surveys its new stomping ground, the onlookers, frankly stunned by what is happening in their town and still instinctively feeling safety in their own numbers, move out of cover to gawp at it. This depiction of society's moth-to-a-flame attitude is something that Spielberg will carry on throughout the film, reaching a highly emotional trigger-point that we will discuss later on. But this is how we would react. We'd get closer. We'd film it. We'd have one perpetual thought in the back of our communal brain - how we can gain profit or celebrity out of this somewhere down the line ... so, hey, what say we just move a little bit ne- FZZZZT!!! - and Spielberg unleashes the kind of jaw-dropping broadside of humans frazzled and turned into clouds of ash that had most of us thinking we would be in for ninety minutes more of this stuff.

    “You and me ... I don't think we're on the same page.”

    Taking an unusual slant on the tale and lending it a semi-documentary look, courtesy of Janusz Kaminski's contrast-heightened, grain-magnified and colour-bypassed photography, and an authentically gritty feel of numbing desperation, Spielberg jettisons what made George Pal's 1953 version such a vibrant riot of escapist hokum, stamping his vision with a modern-day depiction of a society that is already scared and wary, and forever caught on the hop by events that it cannot predict or control. It is telling that Robbie's first fears that the culprits behind all this destruction are terrorists and a genuinely sad, but true, statement on the terrified American psyche is reproduced here-after. I knew at the time that he had decided to go down this route for a reason, but I, like many others I presume, did not really want to be reminded of that reason so soon. We just wanted to have alien-bashing fun. With hindsight, Spielberg was acting with more courage than we ever gave him credit for. What other Hollywood director of a big screen FX-blockbuster would have used that crowd-drawing avenue to embrace the theme of 9/11's legacy? Although he had investigated the trauma, the horror, and historical shock-waves of the Second World War in both Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, and tackled, quite sanctimoniously, the plight of the slaves in Amistad, it was clear, with Minority Report and now War Of The Worlds that his outlook and attitude had changed. Or rather, been changed for him by the unforgettable events that took place in New York in September 2001, but that shook the entire world. Suddenly, this mass atrocity caused him to rethink, to assess, to take stock and to try to interpret such evil in the context of his combined creativity with Tom Cruise and regular composer John Williams - all three eschewing the formulaic saviour-cliché in order to penetrate the deeper effect of a world in which normal values can be wiped out in an instant.

    “I'm allergic to peanut butter.”

    “Since when?”


    Spielberg's movies took on a darker, more cutting and cynical edge, his former comic-book approach and Peter Pan-esque sense of fun burned-away like the victims of a napalm strike, or those incinerated by the alien death-beam. When the remake of War Of The Worlds came around (he'd actually intended to make it twelve years earlier, but Independence Day stole his thunder), the world that would view it was a much different place than the one that was entertained (or bored) by the likes of what Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin actually did with the resulting hash of Independence Day, so the excitement and wonder of an alien invasion was not going to be something that could be treated so trivially or with any convincing sense of jingoism. Spielberg had been struck numb by the sight of thousands of Americans fleeing from Manhattan and reduced to refugee status. He, along with everyone else, had become appalled by how helpless and vulnerable the once mighty United States really was in the face of such calamity. And not just terrorism. After his emotional SF allegory was released, Hurricane Katrina sank New Orleans and the human disaster happened all over again. And, here, mimicking elements from his own film, the worst enemy was not nature at all, but the very people who had been displaced by it. This was something that would form the core of his film, its lost soul, as it were.

    If the seventies was an era of movie nihilism right across all the genres - from Dirty Harry to Straw Dogs to Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Death Race 2000 and from The French Connection to All The President's Men - then the lengthy spell of pop-culture whimsy and daft muscle-packed fantasy that presided over the next two decades was when cosy complacency seemed to have set in. America was sitting arrogantly behind a celluloid wall of inane bravado - a wall that would, literally, come crashing down around its ears. But, in response to the events of 9/11, no-one was quicker than Spielberg, the once demigod of the popcorn movie, himself. Thrusting his man-of-the-moment, Tom Cruise, as the film's “random Joe”, into this wasteland of human detritus and alien red-weed, he set about re-evaluating Wells' doom-mongering tale and placing it in a contemporary setting - with allegory written all over it. Thus, the film becomes a necessary treatise on how vulnerable the United States really is behind all its military might and sabre-rattling world policies. Other less-inspiring filmmakers have happily carried on churning out fluffy-filmic-fodder with nary a thought for the reality of the common-man's collapse in the face of adversity, and the time was right for the true master of movie-exhilaration to show them how it should be done properly. And with a conscience.

    He just didn't bother to wrap it up like a package underneath the Christmas Tree.

    Tom Cruise is excellent, and easily gives one of the best performances of his career. My previous allegation that he battles contrivance more than the aliens just doesn't hold water any more. His good looks have hardened and he's marvellously denied much opportunity to flash that famous grin here. He essays the role of a father who is playing with his commitments without any of the surly arrogance that would have been too stereotypical and, thus, his emotional turnaround is a lot more credible to behold. He is able to inject an edgy terror and a desperately dark texture to the role that perfectly encapsulates a man who has witnessed too much too quickly and realises that he will have to do the unthinkable if he and his family are to survive. His interplay with Tim Robbins (who is also excellent) during the celebrated basement scene has a frightening intensity, and although we have no real sense of the passage of time down there in their hidey-hole, there is a great and growing comprehension that both men have realised their mistake in joining forces, even when they aren't at one another's throats. But Cruise works wonders with the part, attaining a level of emotional nudity that is, at times, heartbreaking. Look at his face when he sees Rachel's rosette as he sits comforting her down in Ogilvy's basement, look at the sheer weight of the things in her life that he has missed register in his eyes, and then the sudden crushing realisation that all those feelings he had thought he'd kept in a box under the bed are about to engulf him. Look at his painful shame at not being able to remember a single lullaby to sing to her. That is real, and raw, and the lack of laser-beams and explosions elsewhere can take nothing away from a story that is, at its core, about protecting your own.

    “And I'm dead set on living. Dead ... set ... on living. Ha.”

    Fanning has a howling time of it, although I'm still not particularly moved by her plight. The river of floating corpses (another element that is wilfully enigmatic - how did they end up there?) is a poignant image all right, but her rising fears at the sight of it leave me untouched. Likewise the whole “Make the arms, Rachel” safe-in-your-space stuff, which can feel like another Spielbergian home-grown trademark that just fails to evoke the more successful moments of reassurance from Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T. Fanning is a terrific little actress, of course, but she does have that tendency to say things in such a way that is painfully beyond her years, however I think that the constant screaming that annoyed many people is actually perfectly valid considering the situations that she finds herself in - and she is, in no way, as downright unlovable as those two scrotes in Jurassic Park! And Chatwin's Robbie is no longer the irritation I once claimed him to be. He doesn't have the stereotypical teenage rage, or the usual “issues” that one associates with American high school kids, and this makes his lazily, semi-polite antagonism towards his father all the more believable. He's not at all a bad kid, and he justifiably has no respect for his wastrel of a father. His sudden freedom-fighting stance is not ridiculous or contrived. Unlike Ray, he has no overburdening responsibility. He can make his own decisions and go his own way. The bond between him and his father isn't such that he feels compelled to stick around - and let's face it, they are all reluctant companions anyway. He is righteously angry and his instincts, perhaps hormonally charged, urge him to fight back. This actually makes a helluva lot of sense to me. And so does Ray's anguished response to all this. Not only does he want to be seen to be doing the right thing - for fear of upsetting their mother - but his own protective instincts, which have catered only for himself for so long, have kicked-in and he is too exhausted to fight them off as well. Thus, the family dynamic - strained, aggravating and caustic at first - cycles through some very truthful developments, meaning that when these people hug one another and weep either with terror, grief or elation, you believe it.

    “Ray, take care of our kids.”

    “You've got nothing to worry about.”

    The flip-side of this means that Miranda Otto, as Ray's ex-wife and the mother of Robbie and Rachel, enjoys nothing more than what amounts to a thankless cameo. And, speaking of cameos, I'm still not too happy with the obvious manner in which Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stalwart battlers from the 1953 movie, are employed in this version. They may have had only limited time and Robinson is unmistakably lousy, even for the non-speaking split-second that we see her for, but I'm sure that something else could have been created for them to do besides standing in a doorway like that.

    “These came from some place else.”

    “What, like Europe?”

    “No, Robbie. Not like Europe!”

    Seen before in glorious Three-Strip Technicolor, heard on the airwaves, thanks to the inspired production from Orson Welles, and heard on a magnificent album (and now live stage production) from Jeff Wayne, the threat from our alien invaders has never lacked the terrifying prospect of mass destruction. And who in their right mind can honestly say that Spielberg short-changed us in this department? When called for, he literally explodes the movie with intensity, and his powerhouse direction of the intersection scene, the ferry-tossing and the basement set-piece is exemplary. The tripods have an awesome retro-tech look and that foghorn/whale-song siren is tremendously eerie. Although, I must confess that I still find the 1953 Manta-ships and their sizzling gun-hum more unsettling. The carnage is suitably in-your-face, with victims evaporating into plumes of dust without even the time to scream, and that random approach to the sweeping death-ray, with our hero weaving in and out of erupting people, is a magnificent helter-skelter through hell on earth. Some of the bigger effects - like a building blowing-out just behind Ray as he runs, or the ripping up of the yawning flyover - look grandly scenic but are not altogether convincing despite ILM's seamless blending. My favourite moment, though, besides that amazing 360-degree roving camera trick that circles the Ferrier's stolen car (Ray would be the one to think about the solenoids, wouldn't he?), is the shot of the tripods striding down a distant hillside vaporising huge swathes of fleeing people - it is a majestically horrifying image actually enhanced by Spielberg shooting it in an almost matter-of-fact fashion from far away and without focusing upon it. The mob-attack on the car is a clever touch too, as it reveals a painfully astute observation on society's eventual slide into violence when faced with a disaster. Again, the uncaring frenzy he shows here was prescient of the anarchy exhibited during the aftermath of the flooding out of New Orleans. That each successive escapee who gets behind the wheel of the car will be dragged out to his or her death is the sad point he is making. But others will still try. It also serves as a harrowing reminder of what happened to two British soldiers caught by a murderous mob at a funeral cortège in Northern Ireland - all sadly captured on TV cameras at the time.

    The inferno-express may look striking but it still reminds me too much of Mars Attacks! for some reason, and the red weed - a uniquely atmospheric touch that, to this day, hasn't been given a fully suitable depiction - looks awesomely uncanny when Ray observes the new landscape in that wide, Wizard Of Oz-style reveal - although I wish we'd seen more of its grotesque carpeting of the Earth. All of this, however, becomes upstaged by the great battle-of-wills between Ray and Ogilvy down in the basement. This entire sequence plays out like a mini-movie or even an unnerving episode of The Twilight Zone. There is real tension down there in the gloom, and the umbilical snake-eye that probes for hiding humans is a coldly gleaming touch of unsympathetic, clinical terror. The scourging of the ghettos is clearly recalled here, and although the lengthy inclusion of a hunter-team of aliens is perhaps unnecessary, it is still incredibly cool to watch them picking about through the human detritus.

    “Now we'll be the ones coming up from underground.”

    I, alongside many others, had a major problem with the tripods having been buried here a long time ago. It just didn't seem to make sense. Why would the invaders do that and then sit back and wait until the Earth might, in fact, be able to mount some form of defence and counter-attack? Would not these war-machines now be incredibly primitive compared to the technology that they probably had to hand all these centuries later? Technology that can seemingly deliver passenger capsules hundreds of feet through the ground yet leave only an alarmingly small crater on the surface. Actually, this element - robbing Wells' point about the aliens studying us from afar without ever having been here - is what threatened to ruin the film for me. Yet, along with virtually every other aspect of the film that I once denounced, even this narrative-threat fails to irritate. Maybe the aliens have exercised a campaign of “seeding” host planets with these methods for aeons. But who cares? As with much of their motivations and intentions, we probably aren't supposed to know. It is all part of the mass panic and confusion that would ensue in the face of such a cosmic-scaled attack. The film is about reactions ... and not explanations. That is another crucial point that Spielberg and writers David Koepp and Josh Friedman are keen to make. Having the aliens actually arrive in capsules or battle-machines on the eve of war (Wells reference fully intentional there, folks) - would have worked just fine here, too, but it would also have been something that we've seen all too often in the genre already. At least this was different - visually and thematically - and taps into the all-too scary notion of insurgency, once more making this telling just as relevant to us, today, as Haskin's Dresden-esque version was to a post WWII society, and Wells' original was in terms of the Industrial Revolution that he regarded as unstoppable, but devoutly dangerous at the same time.

    “Dad ... you've got to let me go. I need to see this.”

    “No! You think you do, but you don't! You don't!

    Regarding this pivotal scene quoted above - here is what I originally wrote.

    Well, we get that heroic charge over the hill that seems to drag all the refugees who were once heading away from the chaos right into the heart of the conflagration. This was the scene that brought about the most audible groans of dismay from the audience that I first saw it with. Probably because this ill-fated hilltop offensive promised so much - with its helicopter gunships, massed humvees and pounding artillery, and that Custer-inspired plunge into the maelstrom - but delivered so little in the end. “I need to see this!” argues Robbie when Ray tries to pull him back from the brink. “No, you don't!” snaps Dad. The simple fact is, we all need to see this. For such a large scale scene of spectacular visual effects, having all the good stuff happen on the other side of the hill is a monumental let-down.

    Well, that's what I said then and, time and time again since I wrote that particular bit, it has come back to haunt me. I was the one who was missing the entire point that Spielberg was making. Of course we don't need to see it. With the world caught up in so much turmoil all the time and media saturation allowing round-the-clock coverage of it. With beatings and torture caught mercilessly on camera-phones and then made available on social networking sites, the world and all of its horrors are so immediately accessible to each and every one of us that it actually takes courage for a director to slam on the brakes and shy away from the carnage that he could so easily show us. I mentioned those two squaddies in Northern Ireland getting filmed being beaten to a pulp in broad daylight ... do you see what I mean? Right now the emotions that well up inside me at the sight of Ray parting with his son in the shadow of the apocalypse are so completely reversed to what they were back then that I feel like a totally different person. If you want spectacle and battles, then look at Independence Day (despite the fact that it is utterly dire for a veritable multitude of reasons), which, as a genre offering, is the absolute antithesis of War Of The Worlds. The large-scale action, body-zapping conflict between us and them - “We get back at them. We get back at them!” - was joyously captured in the George Pal/Byron Haskin version. Spielberg didn't want to do that. With this, Minority Report and Munich, you could clearly see how the filmmaker had changed, or rather been changed by the events of 9/11. Forget Schindler's List, which was actually an optimistic film about hope, this was Spielberg at his darkest and most sobering.

    “This is not a war any more than there's a war between men and maggots. This is an extermination.”

    Spielberg has always had a thing for the imagery of eyes, and of “seeing”. Look at Quint's not-big-enough boat, the Orca, sailing off to a date with toothy destiny in Jaws, the vessel framed by the boiled shark's jaws hanging in the window to form a jagged iris, or even when poor old Ben Gardner's head lolls into view in the bite-hole in his own boat's hull, producing another ghastly parody of an eye. Look at Dennis Weaver's increasingly concerned face as he peers nervously in his mirror for that demonic truck in Duel. Close Encounters, for all its incandescent UFO trickery is really about how folks “perceive” the impressions that they glean from experiences. The glowing finger of ET as he directs the attention of his friends is a symbolic torch to point the way for those who cannot, otherwise, see the light. Poltergeist is rife with metaphors for seeing and then there is the monstrous eye of the T-Rex peering in through the window of the monorail tour car in Jurassic Park, or a velociraptor's beady eye through the little round kitchen porthole. Then there's Saving Private Ryan's bubblegum-affixed mirror to reveal enemy positions atop the cliffs above Omaha Beach, or Barry Pepper's eye down his sniper-sight, and we have the over-abundance of eye motifs in Minority Report (most overtly, of course, with the removal of the lead character's) but the repeating touch is of Cruise's cop looking through an eye-shaped hole in a window. This is brought over to WOTW when we see Ray through the hole in his own window after he has thrown a baseball through it, polarising his futility and impotence with regards to family responsibility. Then again, when Ray sees the frightened mother and child through the hole in his wrecked windscreen. We see Rachel's face reflected in the “eye” of the alien probe down in the basement. And, most crucially, when Ray sees her trapped beneath an attacking Tripod through another eye-shaped hole in another windscreen, this time of an upturned army jeep. Spielberg is concerned not only with how we, as the audience, view things, but also how his characters do - especially in terms of their own physical and emotional involvement in them. This may just be a stylistic touch, of course, but maybe it is also a way for him to increase their own believable “existence” within the encompassing drama. The characters, the actors playing them, the director, his cameraman, and ourselves all watching the same event but from different viewpoints and perspectives. It is what Film, as an art form is all about, of course, but somehow you notice this more in a Spielberg production.

    “Where you on that plane?”

    “No ...”

    “That's too bad ... would have been a really great story.”

    A soldier pointing upwards to a wave of attack helicopters swooping towards their doom, Ray's reflection in a window obscured by a peanut-butter sandwich he has just hurled against it, literally an image of clownish futility, cowering people in a shop completely flattened by a car spun right in on top of them, the crazed desire that a woman has to drag Rachel off to safety even though she is pointing towards her father and refusing to leave - the visions that Spielberg gathers becoming a varied chart of catastrophe and the often bewildered responses it provokes. I love the way that we see Ray atop his high dockside crane at the start of the movie, because this actually seems like a neat parody of the very things he will be battling against later on. Almost like the driver of one of the tripods, himself. The tussle with the probe is a taut game of cat and mouse, magnified tenfold with by the lunacy of Ogilvy's loose canon. The clothing falling from the sky that our three fugitives simply take for granted after a succession of such startling sights. It is easy to say that all of this comes undone with the rather abrupt and saccharine resolution, but this is to forget that Wells' own original novel ended in much the same manner. If I am honest, I still think the climax is disappointing, but then that is the genre-buff in me lamenting the absence of one final spectacular showdown. Surely, the clever thing is the poetry that Spielberg's film has captured. The attack comes out of nowhere ... and it is famously defeated right out of the blue, as well. The story, and the journey we and the Ferriers go on, is cyclic.

    “Occupations never work. History's taught us that.”

    There's a few examples of this happening right now, Koepp and Friedman's screenplay tapping into something of a theme that is destined never to become outdated.

    And then there is the score from John Williams, which is superb. Long-influenced by the grandmaster Max Steiner, Williams, here, in very atypical fashion, eschews his familiar trademark motifs and flourishes and literally hurls the entire orchestra into the mix with a frenetic, and non-stop, score of driving aggression and frightening intensity. The level of angry bombast offered is akin to the energy of Steiner's original score for King Kong, with furious cues for the key action sequences. Even his quieter moments have a powerful statement of mourning and affecting human trauma. It is a class piece of work. For more details on it please refer to my review for the CD release.

    “I'm not going to let my daughter die because of you.”

    War Of The Worlds is a stunning film that, as I have tried to show, works on so many levels it positively demands repeat viewing. If my own hard-faced opinion about it can be so utterly switched around, then it must have something so deep-set and ingrained within its thematic psyche - perhaps as deeply entrenched and implacable as the alien war-machines, themselves - that it will stand as a shining example of the right film at a very difficult time. Personally, I'd give it an extra mark for the sheer magic that it has worked on me, but I think a very strong 8 out of 10 is fair enough.

    A thoughtful and important adaptation of a classic tale, Spielberg's War Of The Worlds comes highly recommended.