WAR OF THE WORLDS
By Steve Biodrowski
This is the best film of its kind ever made. Taking the spirit of the H.G. Wells novel and combining it with elements of the 1953 George Pal film version, Josh Friedman and David Koepp provide a script that Steven Spielberg directs like a master, utilizing the 21st century technology at his command to create a work filled with spectacular special effects a la INDEPENDENCE DAY -- but also with a grim fatality and utter seriousness that deliberately evoke the horrors of September 11, 2001.
What is so impressive about this remake is that it combines the best elements of ID4 with what made the original WAR OF THE WORLDS a classic. The special effects equal and surpass the work in INDEPENDENCE DAY; more important, the film captures the sense of hopeless, helpless doom that makes the 1953 George Pal film endure as a timeless classic far superior to ID4 (even if that film had more spectacular destruction). The new WAR has as much computer-generated devastation as INDEPENDENCE DAY, but it doesn't use these effects to goose the audience into feeling the familiar action-adventure thrill (unlike 2001's PEARL HARBOR, wherein the surprise attack was just an excuse to get the audience pumped up for the counter-attack).
Instead, the new film captures the ground zero experience of ordinary people caught up catastrophic events almost beyond their ability to comprehend, let alone control. With post-modern zeal, the script assumes the audience knows what's coming, so it jumps into its action quickly: after a few effective scenes to establish Tom Cruise as the divorced father stuck with his kids for a weekend, the lightening bolts start striking and the alien war machines start rising from the ground, destroying everything in their path -- without ever giving anyone a moment to figure out just why they are attacking.
The rest of the film details the efforts of Cruise to get his kids to safety -- which is not much of a plan, because there may be no safety anywhere on the face of the planet. They run and hide from one location to the next, while the film gives us brief glimpses of battles and destruction. Finally, the find themselves in a basement with a half-crazed man (Tim Robbins) intent on fighting the invaders, but his futile efforts threaten to betray their hiding place.
With Cruise as a reluctant father who rises to the occasion, rescuing his children from a fantastic menace, the film is clearly working the same motif seen in the previous Spielberg-Koepp collaboration, JURASSIC PARK. Here, however, the strategy works much better. The dramatic scenes are exceptionally well written, creating a sense of believability and tension that make the alien invasion register as something genuinely threatening, not a fun-filled special effects romp.
As much as I abhor the casting of pampered rich movie stars in regular working guy roles, Cruise really does pull it off, giving a powerful dramatic performance with none of the visible strain so often apparent in his attempts to prove himself a genuine actor (as opposed to a mere movie star). In what amounts to a three-character crucible, Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin hold their own opposite the star, and Robbins makes the most of his small role.
The results are powerful and even devastating. It is impossible to watch much of the action without recalling the live television coverage of the events at the real Ground Zero in New York. WAR OF THE WORLDS is unapologetically meant to be terrifying, but hopefully it is a cathartic experience, not a painful one.
It is interesting to note that both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created their first science-fiction blockbusters way back in 1977 (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and STAR WARS, respectively). In the decades since, Lucas has degenerated into something of a mechanical hack, displaying little aptitude as a director of live-action. Spielberg, on the other hand, has honed his craft to near perfection. Even when his judgment betrays him (which is all to frequently, as in films like MINORITY REPORT and A.I.), he knows how to use his filmic tools to create something interesting to watch.
That skill is on view here on numerous occasions, most obviously in a tense, one-take shot of the father and his two children speeding to escape in a truck. In a virtuoso display, the camera tracks 360-degrees around the moving vehicle, and yet the effect is never showy. The move seems totally natural: the camera is always in the right place at the right time to record the actors' reactions, isolating the characters and creating a sense of claustrophobia, even though they're on the open road. You may find yourself marveling at the brilliance of the moment and thinking this is the greatest single shot in the history of motion pictures. (It may also be Spielberg' homage to the famous three-and-a-half minute tracking shot that opens TOUCH OF EVIL, which was directed by Orson Welles -- the man responsible for the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS, which fooled some people on the East Coast into thinking that Mars really was invading Earth.)
The film does not quite escape unscathed by Spielberg's seemingly inevitable lapses. Some of the plot points stretch credibility: If all it takes is changing a solenoid to get a vehicle moving again after all the electric equipment has crashed, why is there only one working vehicle for so long? And are we really supposed to believe that the alien war machines have been buried on Earth for millions of years like sleeper cells? (Apparently, it was just a lucky break that no subway, sewer, or water pipe ever drilled into one of them -- not to mention natural phenomenon like earthquakes or volcanoes!)
There is slightly pat happy ending, complete with a family reunion, that leaves some question about how a certain character managed to survive. (To be fair, this is in the spirit of the book, which ended with its narrator reuniting with his wife, whom he believed dead.) And as is often the case in Hollywood films, the bond of family overrides all other moral considerations, justifying any action, even homicide -- a rather narrow-minded view in the context of a film about humanity as a whole facing extinction. (Even ID4, in its cornball way, used its alien invasion as an excuse to have people put their differences aside, not try to kill each other in a dog-eat-dog fashion.)
It's interesting to note that both the 1953 version and this remake have scenes (inspired by the book) of the hero hiding out in a destroyed, isolated house, and both versions add a female character to increase audience appeal. It says something (not sure what, but something) that in the Hollywood of 2005, Spielberg makes the additional character a daughter, not a love interest, but then Spielberg has always been at his most commercially successful when keeping any hint of sexuality well off-screen.
Whatever its weaknesses, WAR OF THE WORLDS surmounts them because the driving force of the narrative seldom subsides long enough to allow for consideration of the flaws (except in retrospect, of course). An almost non-stop nightmare of annihilation, it may not be perfect, but it is probably Spielberg's best (fans of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN notwithstanding). It is as spectacular and convincing and terrifying a portrait of the world under siege as the cinema is ever likely to produce.