Directed by: Steven Spielberg | 116 minutes | action, thriller, adventure, science fiction | Actors: Tom Cruise, Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, David Alan Basche, James DuMont, Yul Vazquez, Daniel Franzese, John Scurti, Camillia Sanes, Roz Abrams, Gene Barry, Ann Robinson
Spielberg’s new blockbuster “War of the Worlds” is grand, but somewhat frustrating. It features great sequences and scenes that will leave a lasting impression on the viewer, which, combined with the stark, realistic tone and subtext of the film, provide more than enough motivation to want to see the film again immediately after watching. . However, certain lesser or implausible moments, a tame (anti) climax and a Spielbergian coda that threatens to downplay all of the above, ensure that the film did not ultimately become the masterpiece it could have been.
The Story of “War of the Worlds” written by H.G. Wells and published in 1898, has had several incarnations. There is the famous 1938 radio adaptation of Orson Welles, when listeners really panicked because they actually believed that aliens were attacking Earth; and the film version of George Pal from 1953. Each time the story has had its own socio-political resonance. This time, this war of the worlds has obvious parallels with the war on terror and the value (s) of occupying forces. The first thing precocious Rachel wants to know when she flees with her father and brother and a car from flying laser beams, cars and sections of the viaduct is whether this is the work of terrorists.
Ray tells his daughter that these attacks come from somewhere else. “Like, Europe?” Rachel wants to know. Uh, no. Not quite. This is a technologically and militarily superior power that wants to destroy the Earth’s inhabitants and completely appropriate the planet (which is visually illustrated by the spread of red plants, such as those on the home planet of the invaders). Arguing with the aliens is impossible and of little use and even recourse to God no longer seems possible, as witnessed by the spectacular destruction of a church early in the film. Humans rely on their most basic nature and drives and all the good, but especially bad traits of the human being (s) surface in the chaos and anarchy that arose soon after the first confrontation with the aliens. We see people acting heroically, but just as many people becoming extremely selfish and hostile. One such moment occurs when Ray and his children end up in a crowd with their car and are besieged by the people. The car is smashed and the occupants pulled out. The car is the only one working in the area, so people are prepared (quite literally) to kill for it. This scene is very disturbing in terms of human behavior and (because of this) relatively “on-Spielberg”. It’s also nice that this scene breaks through the hero’s action movie cliché getting through everything. Ray and the kids can do nothing but surrender and blend into the helpless crowd. A crowd with which Ray and his children (and the spectator) will end up in much more grim situations. It is these group scenes that show well that although the emphasis is on Ray’s personal situation, all of humanity is affected by these settlers. Certain shots of the exodus of large groups of refugees are reminiscent of World War II iconography. A short scene with a turning ferry, reminiscent of “Titanic”, is very effective in its simplicity and drama. The same goes for a moment when a train rushing by, on fire at a level crossing and little Rachel who, while standing in a meadow, staring at the river, suddenly sees dozens of bodies drifting by. This is certainly not a light popcorn movie (although there is plenty of “spectacle” in it). The way in which people are attacked by the “tripods” (the name for the alien machines) is very brutal and will cause a shock in the spotlight, especially the first few times. Spielberg seems to want to deal more and more with his “cute” angle in films. There is no question of benign “Close Encounters” creatures. These are the angry brothers of E.T.
These brothers’ war vehicles are impressive machines and the first scenes in which they emerge from under the ripping road surface are breathtaking and thrilling to watch. It takes a great filmmaker to make scenes like this still look fresh and exciting and Spielberg shows that he has certainly not lost his “touch”. The point-of-view shots are well chosen and effectively (sometimes literally) put the spectator in the shoes of those involved. The film is technically excellent, with beautiful, grand sets, beautiful and effective shots, sparse, cool music by John Williams, sometimes reminiscent of his own work for “A.I.” (2001) and the music of “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
It is risky that Spielberg does not show much of the actual war. This is because Ray’s family is central and we see everything through his eyes and that of his children. We only see what they see. For the viewer expecting an (explicitly shown) gigantic war spectacle with many panoramic or helicopter shots of the competing powers, “War of the Worlds” will be a disappointment. Even the ending, traditionally the part that contains a lot of banging action, is unsatisfying in this regard. The war ends quite abruptly and without much ado. The motivation of the intruders is also not mentioned. This is purely about the image of fear aroused by this enemy, who is guilty of an extreme form of senseless violence.
Much is at stake in these extreme circumstances and questions arise about what to do and how far to go to protect your country or family. Ray is mainly busy with the latter, while his son Robbie wants to fight against the invaders with the American army. Ray doesn’t have time to think or worry about his attitude or his “safe” single life. He acts instinctively and the love and safety of his children are the only important things in his life now. Nothing else matters anymore. Because of this, the only thing Ray thinks about is running. Grab a car, get his family in and go. He is not a traditional hero who warns or helps everyone around him and fights back on the front lines against the “alien scum”. No, Ray wants to save his own skin and that of his children. Although it requires killing and making morally questionable decisions, his family should not be endangered. Another interesting approach from Spielberg.
The acting is generally good, although there are some caveats. Cruise is competent, although he does not know how to completely disappear or add much to the role. Fanning is good at the scenes in which she really has to act, but often her contribution is reduced to screaming, which is sometimes a bit oddly dosed. Justin Chatwin is pretty convincing, with the exception of a single scene. Tim Robbins goes on to do what he has to do as the devastated and disillusioned man who offers Ray and his daughter shelter in his basement.
Incidentally, an old-fashioned Spielberg sequence takes place in this basement that is partly reminiscent of the velociraptor scene in the kitchen from ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993) and partly of the investigative spider robot in ‘Minority Report’ (2002), while there is also a reference to ‘E.T’ (1982) is included. Some might dismiss this as too uninspired and showing the aliens as too explicit, but the scenes in question are thrilling and work fine on their own.
There are some moments or situations in the movie that don’t work very well (like Rachel standing in an open field when she’s supposed to run from the alien), don’t make sense (like camcorders keep working while other devices fail), or otherwise infer. The biggest problem is the coda of the film and what this implies in terms of the vulnerability of the characters and the (very well-suited) way of acting of the aliens. Here Spielberg unfortunately lapses back into his sentimental feel-good impulses. Together with the lackluster ending of the war (which is also a positive point in some way, because it indicates the meaninglessness and triviality of the whole situation and breaks with conventions on the side), this last scene undermines to some extent The prior. The negatives of “War of the Worlds” reduce the film almost to a nice, but only marginally above average film. Almost, because the first approximately one hundred minutes are characterized by so many grand, impressive moments that the missteps can be forgiven and one can certainly speak of a good film.