War of the Worlds Review
In my 35 years plus of cinema going, I can count the number of times I have been to see the same film twice on the fingers of one hand. One of those films was Spielberg's masterful retelling of H G Wells' classic novel. Those who regularly read my reviews - usually insomniacs looking for a quick cure - will know that as far as I'm concerned the darker a film is the better. Well, in terms of Spielberg's blockbuster entertainment output, this film is probably up there with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in terms of sheer nastiness. There is no comfort in this film, no sense that everything is ok. Man doesn't triumph in the face of great adversity. He is impotent; he howls and rages against an implacable foe. And at the end of the film, in keeping with the darkness of the original novel, it is down to only sheer fortune that he is not wiped out completely.
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a manual labourer with a directionless life. Manning cranes and shifting loads for a living, he is estranged from his family, and fails to connect with his children, in particular his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin). When he has his children for the weekend, things start off badly when he forgets the time they are due to arrive. Whilst he takes a quick nap, his son steals his car and heads off on a joyride, and his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) orders a healthy takeaway which is a complete mystery to Ray. Just as he discovers his missing car, an unusual storm erupts - lightning flashing to the ground but strangely accompanied by no thunder. Leaving his daughter in the house, Ray heads to an intersection in the centre of his city, where in a memorable scene of destruction a massive Tripod emerges from the earth. This is no friendly alien or relative of ET though. As Ray looks on stunned, the tripod begins to wreak destruction on its surroundings. Blowing away cars as if they were Matchbox toys, and obliterating humans into clouds of dust - the tripod embarks on a swathe of destruction.
Traumatised by what he has witnessed, Ray manages to get back to his children (his son has now turned up) and they begin a desperate dash across country in an attempt to reach the family home in Boston. Along the way they will witness many more disturbing scenes and their relationship will slowly heal.
It is impossible to review War of the Worlds without mentioning 9/11. Spielberg had been trying to make this film for a decade before he finally got round to it, but it has to be said that the paranoia about the enemy within our midst that the famous terrorist attack engendered was ideally suited to this remake. It is one of the perfect examples where world events inform a movie to such an extent that you simply cannot imagine it to have been done any other way. As horrible and unmentionable as the twin towers attack was, it certainly affected Spielberg's psyche and drove him to make one of the darkest most disturbing alien invasion movies that mainstream cinema has seen.
At the time of release, though, many people criticised the film. One of the main criticisms involved the fact that the tripods were already here, buried deep underground and waiting for the aliens to teleport in on waves of lightning. How stupid, the masses cried. It's ridiculous that no-one knew they were there! Well, yes to a certain extent they had a point. But sometimes, you just have to suspend belief. In a film which actually stays remarkably close to its source novel, this is the one major change that Spielberg makes. And to me, it makes perfect sense. If the film is to be an allegory of terrorist attack then it is important that the enemy should come from within. Likewise, the screenwriters were determined to avoid alien invasion clichés. We have seen the big alien mother ship hovering over the earth multiple times in the cinema. We have seen earth being pummeled by external attack over and over again. What we haven't seen before is a ferocious and extremely cool looking lightning storm followed by the menacing rise of a gigantic fighting machine from beneath our very streets. And if you do think about it, it IS possible to rationalize it. Maybe the aliens seeded their tripods amongst various planets back in the dawn of time, and if a planet grew advanced enough to be worth colonising then they activated them. Who knows? At the end of the day, Spielberg finds it unnecessary to explain it - and isn't that the point? Can anyone truly explain a psyche that would hijack a jet airliner and fly it into a tower? What some people missed at the time is that this was the very point of the piece.
And this is the very point that Spielberg hammers home time after time. And is what, I expect, made the film so unpalatable to some. As a director, he doesn't bend over backwards to offer palatable solutions. He doesn't feel he has to explain every small event. What is happening is quite simply unexplainable. Thus a raft of bodies floating down a river, a tripod emerging from beneath the waves, the simple senseless destruction of humans when later on they are harvested instead. None of this makes any sense - none of it is explained. But that is what gives the film its dark heart if you will. This is not a film interested in easy glib solutions - there is no Brent Spiner learning how to control an alien machine here. Just senseless mindless destruction of the human race.
Cruise gives an almost career defining performance as white collar worker Ray. He essays a character who undergoes an interesting arc, and he really does sell the character to us. Starting off cocksure, and unable to relate to his kids, by the end of the film even his walk has changed. He is a broken man who no longer swaggers through life flashing his trademark grin. He has lost his selfish streak and has learned to accept his children as human beings. This may be the stuff of movie cliché but in the hands of Spielberg and Cruise it never seems this way. The way his character changes is so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable - exactly as it should be. You will really dislike this man when you first meet him, but by the end of the film you will see a changed man who has really appeared to go through some life changing experiences. At the beginning he is a man who has to have control over everything around him - by the end he has had every semblance of control taken away in the worst possible way.
In an otherwise incredibly strong movie, sad to say that the weakness is the child actors. This is bizarre because normally Spielberg is so strong with child actors. Dakota Fanning is an excellent actress, we know this - but strangely in this film she never really sells her predicament. Compare Joseph Mazello being terrorised by Dinos in Jurassic Park and then look at Fanning's performance again. She never really totally sells the emotional side of her peril - and this weakness at the core of the film is a serious consideration. Justin Chatwin is similarly weak. When he rages against the alien thread, it never quite seems convincing and at no point during my many viewings of the movie does the fact that he runs off mid-film ever really seem convincing for me. Both these performances are a great shame and although they don't ruin the film - they do lead to me docking a mark.
One of the reasons why these weaknesses don't derail the film is the superb direction from Spielberg. Of course his talent goes without saying, but there are some bravura moments here. The whole scene in the basement of the house is a master class in tension. The slow build up as we gradually realise what state Ogilvy is in. This is followed by the unbearable tension of the aliens exploring (like the Jurassic Park kitchen scene ramped up to ten), and then a totally brutal (but necessary) act to the lilted soft tones of “Hushabye Mountain”. The whole scene is perfectly mounted. Spielberg's sense of pace is also much in evidence here, never letting the movie flag and always providing a tense build up to key scenes. Everyone remembers, for example, the ferry scene (just watch for the camera position as they break the surface of the water) - but the build up to it gradually builds up the tension as they drive through the crowds. I will say no more, in case you haven't seen it - but this is dark dark cinema. And then there is my favourite scene in the whole of cinema (yes it is that good). Watch the car escape from the city in the first half hour. Marvel at it. Watch it again. Attempt to deconstruct it. You wont be able to. It is an AMAZING shot.
I could go on and on, but the reality is that there really isn't much point. I would put War of the Worlds in my top ten films of all time. If you have never seen it due to the lackluster reviews it garnered then you really need to correct that. If you did see it in the cinema but was underwhelmed then I strongly advise you to give it another try. Read my colleague's review of the American disc. If he can change his mind spectacularly then surely you can too.