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As Earth is invaded by alien tripod fighting machines, one family fights for survival.
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NOMINATED FOR 3 OSCARS - Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Design
In “War of the Worlds”, the aliens come once again to Spielberg Town…and there goes the neighborhood. It is no secret that Steven Spielberg’s cinematic universe has darkened considerably over the years, and this film is perhaps the most concrete evidence of that newly hardened sensibility, upending as it does the vision presented by two of his most famous earlier works. In “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” (1982), Spielberg presented alien encounters that were marked by optimism and an unending sense of wonder. They were thought-provoking pictures that allowed us to reflect on the brotherhood of life and the all-encompassing power of love and hope. In “War of the Worlds”, the only thing we wonder is how fast Tom Cruise and his family can escape from the alien tripod death machines before they’re harvested for their blood.
Despite its globally encompassing title, “War of the Worlds” avoids playing as a virtual remake of “Independence Day” by choosing to focus its depiction of a worldwide alien apocalypse squarely on the travails of a single broken family from New Jersey. Dockworker Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a careless overgrown man-child who finds himself stuck with his kids when his now-pregnant ex-wife (Miranda Otto) plans a trip to visit her parents in Boston. No sooner does the ex take off than a series of inexplicable lightning storms rocks Ray’s neighborhood, knocking out electricity and causing bizarre steaming craters in the street. These craters soon split open, and up rise spindly-legged walking machines with unwieldy crablike heads. They seem almost comical…until they let loose with a death-wail foghorn sound and begin using their laser beams to obliterate citizens, buildings and everything in their path. Ray barely escapes with his life, and now it’s up to this basically deadbeat dad to step up and be a real father for the first time as he leads his defiant son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and bright pre-teen daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) back to their mother in Boston. But how do you outrun something that takes steps a city block long?
Spielberg understands, however, that the horrors of such a monumental catastrophe don’t end with the event itself, and he is unsparing in his depiction of the extremes to which ordinarily rational people will be driven in the face of disaster. He gives us roads choked with abandoned cars, crowds of terrified refugees with walkers on their tail racing for a ferry that is leaving without them only half-empty (I was reminded of the steerage-class passengers locked belowdecks in “Titanic”). In the film’s most terrifying sequence, Ray, who has commandeered the only vehicle still working within a hundred miles, has to fight off a furious mob who attempt to steal the van with his screaming daughter still in the backseat. He eventually turns the van over to a gun-wielding refugee…who is then himself shot and killed by the mob. Bill Maher once said that Americans only have two responses to any tragedy: paralysis and panic. “War of the Worlds” dramatizes the second of these reactions as vividly as any film I’ve seen.
It also draws imagery and ideas from the most vivid national tragedy of recent years, and it must be said that, eight years removed from the events of 9/11, certain elements of “War of the Worlds” uncomfortably skirt the boundaries of exploitation. It’s one thing to show buildings collapsing and innocent civilians fleeing a coming conflagration; truth be told, we’ve been seeing images like that in movies for decades. But a scene were Ray brushes clots of dust, the remains of his vaporized neighbors, out of his hair, and a long shot of a wall covered with “Have You Seen Me?” fliers just like the ones we saw plastering New York walls for days and weeks after the 9/11 tragedy…it’s strange that these scenes strike me as more insensitive now than they did back then. Of course, in ’05, the wounds were still so raw for everyone that anything that called to mind those events struck us at such a gut level that objective analysis of our reactions might have been impossible. George W. Bush is now out of office, and most people are less scared of their home being blown up than of losing it to creditors or a bank. Hindsight is often 20/20, and with a little more distance on it, we can see the exploitative elements of “War of the Worlds” more clearly. The film can also be taken
Spielberg is a longtime Hollywood liberal, and there’s one character in the film who serves as a sort of depiction of the left’s worst fears about red-state 9/11-inspired paranoia. Harlan Ogilvy (a pop-eyed Tim Robbins), who takes in Ray and Rachel when they’re on the run from the aliens, is a simple man whose family has been taken away from him by the invaders and who has transformed into a slavering, gun-toting wackjob. He barricades himself in his home, plans to dig underground tunnels from which to attack the alien walkers, and even creepily tells Rachel that he’ll “take care” of her if anything happens to Ray. His grief and anger are so deep that they have poisoned him irreparably, so much so that Ray is forced to commit an unspeakable act just to save Rachel and himself from the man’s mania. With the character’s extreme insanity and Robbins’ over-the-top (but admittedly effective) performance, Ogilvy could easily have turned into a caricature of right-wing fearmongering…but the fact of the matter is that America is crawling with Ogilvies, and it’s smart of Spielberg to include this character as a counterbalance to the film’s clear exploitation of the worst images of horror and death that the Bush administration delivered to the American people during their tenure.
It probably sounds like I liked “War of the Worlds” a lot less than I actually did, but the truth of the matter is that for all of its darkness and unsavory imagistic elements, Spielberg still knows how to tighten the noose like perhaps no other filmmaker alive. Hitchcock once said he loved playing the audience like a piano. Here, Spielberg plays us like we’re the London Philharmonic. (John Williams, by the way, contributes his usual tense and thrilling Spielbergian score.) The sequences of alien assault are some of the scariest I’ve seen in a film; indeed, with the aliens’ lack of motivation for their attacks and the extreme brutality of the images, this plays as close to a straight-up horror film as anything Spielberg has ever done. The film is brilliantly edited by Spielberg stalwart Michael Kahn, and longtime cinematography collaborator Janusz Kaminski gives us his usual dark-but-inviting images. The cast is also strong across the board. Chatwin gives his best to the film’s most ill-conceived character (I still find it hard to believe that a slacker like Robbie would become Mr. Gung Ho Kill-‘Em-All once the aliens attack), and Fanning proves that, Abigail Breslin’s Oscar nomination be damned, she is the best actress in her age group out there. Fair judgment of Cruise’s work here was impossible at the time of the film’s release, coming as it did on the heels of his hooking up with Katie Holmes and the media maelstrom that followed, but he’s quite good, never a sci-fi superhero, always just a not-very-good dad thrust into a situation where he has to be the best dad alive, or else. He’s appropriately frenetic in the action moments, but his performance allows him everything from the slow simmering anger of a game of catch with Robbie (it ends with Ray furiously whinging a baseball through his own window) to the helpless misery of his lullaby for Rachel (he doesn’t know the song she requests, so he sings the only one he can think of …the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe”). It’s nice to get a reminder, in the wake of all that’s come, of what a good actor Cruise can really be, and he’s near the top of his game here.
The screenplay, adapted from H.G. Wells’ novel David Koepp and Josh Friedman, does a fine job of transposing Wells’ world-encompassing thriller into a simple story of a family under siege, but they do drop the ball in a couple of respects. I honestly feel we could have done without the scene where the aliens leave their walkers and explore Ogilvy’s basement; it’s a good tense set piece, but seeing the aliens diminishes their mystery. They’re a much more horrifying antagonist when they are just unseen assailants blasting away from the cockpits of their walkers. The ultimate fate of these aliens also struck many audiences as hackneyed, but I’m not gonna hold that against Koepp and Freidman’s script. It comes right from the novel, and it was used in the 1953 film version of “Wars” as well, so I feel like any objections to that should be taken up with Wells. What cannot be blamed on him, however, is the cop-out of the final scene. I won’t reveal this ending for those of you who haven’t seen the film, but I will say to everyone that rolled their eyes over this conclusion, I’m right there with you.
“War of the Worlds” is one of the most problematic pictures of Spielberg’s recent career. It’s the master filmmaker giving us images and set pieces up there with the best he’s ever delivered, but wrapping them in an overcoat of timeliness and ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy at once compelling and cynical, almost tasteless. It’s a stronger film than “Independence Day” in every possible respect, but if I was just after a good fun time at the movies, this is not the way I would go. Will Smith sucker-punching aliens may not be the most realistic moment in cinema history…but sometimes realistic is not what we go to the movies for.