War of the Worlds Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    War of the Worlds Review
    Trailing behind the R2 release, this R1 counterpart arrives under the banner of “Limited Edition”, although it appears to mimic the wider-release version exactly. Fortunately, this 2-discer sports the infinitely more striking cover art of an embossed-relief alien hand taking hold of the Earth, rather than the more generic, and quite mundane, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning two-shot. The film has had mixed reviews 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. That the film is utterly riddled with planet-swallowing plot-holes has proved to be a great topic for debate, its narrative errors, in fact, a fundamental flaw that, from practically any other filmmaker would be acceptable in the grand scheme of things, but from such a fine visual storyteller as Steven Spielberg are just plain unforgivable. These lapses have been covered extensively here on this site, and elsewhere, but I will add my views a little later on. For now, let's just recap what you probably know already ...

    “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?”

    When I saw this at the cinema, the audience barometer descended from fever pitch at the ground-ripping entrance of the tripods, the wow-factor seeming to diminish successively throughout the various set-pieces, ultimately culminating in a stunned disappointment come the abrupt and unsatisfying finale. Many patrons were quite vocal about what they believed amounted to a cinematic kop-out. And, I must confess that I felt exactly the same. Spielberg's flash-bang, hair-trigger excitement during early scenes of warp-factor devastation are great, it is true, but they progressively lose vigour, impact and thrill as the stumbling saga unfolds amid an often crass and heavily-contrived screenplay that makes a hash of the source material - original book, radio-broadcast, musical and earlier film. A different direction was certainly called for, but not one as unfulfilling of its initial promise as this. I remember being incredibly confused by the emptiness I experienced from what should have been an epic slice of spectacular sci-fi (I mean, the clue is in the title - War Of The Worlds has to be big, brash and broad in scope) and trying to analyse just what I thought had gone wrong. Well, all that was months ago now, and with the hype replaced by reality and with expectations suitably lowered, I have the opportunity to confront what confounded me first time around and give Spielberg's War Of The Worlds the reassessment it must surely deserve.

    “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 and gritty authentic feel of desperation, Spielberg jettisons what made Pal's 1953 version such a vibrant riot of hokum, stamping his vision with a modern-day depiction of a society that is already scared, 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 statement on the terrified American psyche is reproduced here-after. I know that he has decided to go down this route for a reason. But the most commercial director on the planet (I don't class George Lucas as a director, you see) has already proved his politicking prowess with Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad. And he has the forthcoming Munich with which to spark up on weightier issues, so why choose such fertile sci-fi escapism as War Of The Worlds to provide a needlessly solemn 9/11 allegory? He could have retained the seriousness of the theme, with all of its thought-provoking observations on Man's endurance and survival instinct and still given the public the resounding, big scale fx romp that they craved.

    “They came from somewhere else.”

    “What, like Europe?”

    “No, Robbie. Not Europe!”

    It came. It saw. It couldn't conquer, though. The alien war machine failed not because of Cruise's quick-thinking everyman, and not even because of the avian-flu floating about. But rather because they've been here before ( and that's not a spoiler I'm referring to there) and had their invasion envisaged much better than this. By page, by airwave, song and, especially, Three-Strip Technicolor, each earlier incarnation managed a more entertaining and observant treatment than Spielberg's sombre tale of America's (suddenly all-too evident, given recent events) refugee-status. It's odd and, I believe purely manipulative that such a crowd-pleasing director would opt to remove the fun of the subject as a knee-jerk reaction to how he sees his nation's home-front these days. For that is exactly what this is - a 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. Yet, barring a couple of sequences of sustained brilliance, his event-movie still disappoints.

    “This is an extermination.”

    But, and here's the important thing, even Spielberg at his worst is a more engaging and dynamic director than many others at their best. And despite my damning-sounding comments, I did find that I quite liked the movie and even found it pretty darned thrilling, once I'd accepted its limitations. Even though it is mortally flawed by its single-viewpoint narrative (it may remind you of the book's style, but its execution is carries none of its weight), suffers screenplay handicaps and a severely truncated conclusion that leaves you feeling as though you've eaten only half a meal, there is still much to commend it. Tom Cruise is excellent, although he battles contrivance more than the aliens. His good looks have hardened and he's marvellously denied much opportunity to flash that grin here. He essays the role of a father who is playing with his commitments without the surly arrogance that would have been too stereotypical and, thus, his emotional turnaround is a lot more credible to behold. Although the range he has to go through isn't that wide a field, he nevertheless injects 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, although his tear-tinged Beach Boys rendition hits a bum note. Fanning has a howling time of it, although I was never once moved by her plight. The river of floating corpses (why weren't they vaporised?) is a poignant image but her rising fears at the sight of it left me untouched. Likewise the “Make the arms, Rachel” safe-in-your-space stuff is an ineptly handled Spielberg trademark that fails to evoke the moments of reassurance from Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T. Chatwin's Robbie is an annoyance, too. Check out his ridiculous Rambo-rant. It comes on far too quickly - he sees one crashed plane (with its curiously convenient pathway for them to drive through) and suddenly he's Earth's leading freedom-fighter. Miranda Otto as Ray's ex-wife and the mother of Robbie and Rachel enjoys nothing more than what amounts to a cameo. And, speaking of cameos, what was the point of having Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stalwart battlers from the 1953 movie, involved in the film if all they are going to do is stand in a doorway during an appalling climax?

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

    But, when Spielberg gets it right the movie literally explodes 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 still find the 1953 Manta-ships and their gun-hum more unsettling. The carnage is suitably in-your-face, with victims evaporating into clouds of ash 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 flyover - look grandly scenic but are not altogether convincing, however. My favourite moment ,though, 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. The mob-attack on the car is a clever touch too, as it reveals a painfully astute observation on society's eventual slide 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. The inferno-express may look striking but it reminded me more 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 surprisingly lame when Ray observes the new landscape in a wide reveal. But, much of these hits and misses are obscured by the great battle-of-wills between Ray and Ogilvy down in the basement. This entire sequence plays out like a mini-movie and, in fact, it has a much better construction than the movie that is wrapped around it. 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.

    “What are you, your mother? Or mine?”

    I, alongside many others, have a major problem with the tripods having been buried here a long time ago. In fact, this element - robbing Wells' point about the aliens studying us from afar without ever having been here - more than any other case of plot stupidity (and there are many) is what threatens to ruin the film for me. It has been argued back and forth since the film was first shown and I really don't want to go into detail on such a publicly-debated, and glaringly obvious, gaff in the screenplay, suffice to say that its unnecessary inclusion only succeeds in hanging a huge question mark over the entire conceptual-narrative of the story. It is a ludicrous additional element that relegates much of the ensuing war and, particularly, its outcome, nonsense. What worked in the book, and in Pal's movie - of having the aliens actually arrive in capsules or battle-machines on the eve of war (Wells reference fully intentional, folks) - would have worked just fine here, too. What was the point of meddling if the writers couldn't totally justify it? And then even Ray's everyman-just-an-ordinary-Joe status is undermined by writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp in that it is he who thinks of the solenoids that will get the car going, he who meets the expositional TV crew who can handily explain some of what is going on, he who grabs a fistful of a grenades and, once again, he that spots that the tripod shields are down. No, not a hero at all then. Yeah, right. With regards to the other heroes of the show, what of the military? 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 have 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 letdown. And don't get me started on the naff human-basket scene. We're supposed to be cranking up the tension towards the climax, not filtering it out through un-exciting TV show antics.

    On a more positive note, John Williams's score 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. Class.

    So, although Spielberg dropped the ball with this one, there remain scenes of eye-popping visuals, moments of grand emotion and some genuine intensity. It is not what I expected and, ultimately, not what I wanted from a Spielberg-ian take on such ripe and exciting material but, if you err on the side of the two-hour popcorn and pizza brigade and have no preconceptions, then I suspect you will discover much to entertain you. But it's no classic, that's for sure.

    The Rundown

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