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War of the Worlds (2005) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 29 June 2005
If Tom Cruise’s personal hijinks haven’t dampened the obvious enthusiasm for this movie, Paramount/DreamWorks have a major winner on their hands. “War of the Worlds” is not just the best movie of the year so far, it’s the best alien invasion movie since the original “The War of the Worlds” back in 1953. (Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of that film, have brief cameos at the end of this one.)

It’s so far above “Independence Day” that there’s very little comparison. That movie was a funhouse ride, not to be taken seriously except at moments. This movie means business, and its business is very grim indeed; this is even darker than “Jaws.” It’s not as gruesomely realistic as the first quarter of “Saving Private Ryan,” but it’s a lot more movie-realistic and serious in its goals than almost any other big-audience movie Spielberg has made in many years. There are many hand-held camera shots but thankfully Spielberg doesn’t resort to that rapid-fire editing that passes for action these days.

H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel was the first book ever dealing with an alien invasion; as with so many science fiction concepts, Wells not only was the originator, but established the pinnacle work. He’s been matched at times, but rarely bested. And he’s been influential. In 1938, Orson Welles broadcast a dramatization of “The War of the Worlds” on his Mercury Theater, cannily planning things so some listeners would believe—at least for a while—that they were listening to a news report about Martians invading New Jersey. (For years, Welles piously claimed that he had no idea that anyone would take it seriously, but not long before his death finally admitted that he had that in mind all along.) The George Pal movie version in 1953 was one of the biggest hits of the year, and helped firmly plant science fiction as one of the most popular movie genres of the 1950s.

“War of the Worlds” came together very quickly. The 4th Indiana Jones movie, which Spielberg expected to begin directing last summer, was put on hold; Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible 3” was likewise postponed. The two had enjoyed working on “Minority Report” together, and had planned for some time to do “War of the Worlds.” Now there was a gap in their schedules, so like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney—hey, we’ve got a barn, my uncle can do special effects, let’s put on a show! The film got up and going in a very short time, and Spielberg’s typical brisk working methods got the film finished and on screens in less than a year, rather than the two such a movie would ordinarily require.

It was worth the effort. The script by David Koepp (the credited Josh Friedman seems to have written an unused draft) sets the movie in the present day. The opening and closing narration, read by Morgan Freeman, is very close to what Wells originally wrote, but the dialogue and characters are new. The movie hits most of the same beats that the novel does; it’s a faithful-at-one-remove adaptation.
Cruise is Ray Ferrier, a guy whose life hasn’t gone quite the way he expected. He has an okay job running a crane on the New Jersey docks, and a swell restored Mustang, but he’s divorced, living alone, and pretty much estranged from his two kids (who live with their remarried mother), teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin, who looks like he could be Cruise’s son) and younger Rachel (Dakota Fanning).

Their mother, Mary Ann, (Miranda Otto) and second husband Tim (David Alan Basche) drop the kids off at Ray’s, and leave for Boston. The kids aren’t thrilled to be stowed with their father; they have almost no relationship, and Ray hasn’t a clue as to how to deal with them. He’s so much a bachelor that there’s a car engine sitting in his living room, unwashed dishes everywhere and a fridge that contains only barbecue sauce, ketchup and spoiled milk.

Meanwhile, in the background, we catch glimpses of news reports about strange outbreaks of lightning here and there around the world. It seems to be shutting down power, and some people are beginning to take it seriously. But not soon enough for Ray and his children. The mysterious storm arrives in New Jersey. Dozens of lightning bolts crash around them; Robbie’s out in Ray’s car, and Ray and Rachel hide under the kitchen table. (Tom Cruise? Hiding? Not the only unexpected element here.) The buildup to the storm and the storm itself are very exciting and eerie, a satisfactory replacement for he unscrewing cylinder of the novel and Pal’s movie.

When things quiet down, they realize all power—including watches and cars—has been cut off by the electrical storm. Going out to see what’s what, Cruise tosses off a suggestion to a mechanic friend, puzzling over a customer’s car, that he try the solenoid. At an intersection, the pavement is crumpled. Ray is among a circle of onlookers who are stunned to see the cracks spread out, even up the sides of buildings. (Another great sequence.)

Then suddenly something stands up from underneath the street. It’s a giant machine, walking on three legs. People stare in awe—until it begins firing a deadly heat ray that sets buildings on fire and causes people to explode into ashes, scattering their clothes. Ray runs home, grabs the kids, finds the mechanic friend has indeed fixed the car—and Ray commandeers the car, racing northward, hoping to reach Mary Ann in Boston. He hasn’t any idea how to deal with the kids, who are beginning to get really frightened, with damned good reason, but he wants to get to where that machine can’t reach him. He learns later that there are many tripodal war machines that occasional emit thunderous hollow roars, hiss with steam and spew fluids.

First they hole up in Tim’s huge home. Ray frantically tries to turn into a caring father, making peanut butter sandwiches like mad. Rachel informs him that she’s allergic to peanuts. Ray’s disbelieving. “Since when have you been allergic to peanuts?” Rachel wryly replies, “Birth.” They hole up in the cellar as something else, not one of the tripods, collides with the house.

And that’s as much of the story as I’m going to tell you. The movie focuses tightly on Ray and his children, dealing largely with their changing relationship under these, to say the least, stressful times. They flee onward toward Boston, encountering hordes of refugees. They only rarely see the invaders’ war machines, but see their effects everywhere. They encounter panicked crowds in a small town and boarding a ferry (the movie has many crowd scenes with hundreds of extras). At one point they see a train roar by, a powerful, shocking image undercut slightly when you remember the train should have no power.

They have an eerie, disturbing encounter with Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), an ambulance driver gone round the bend. At first he seems reasonable, a bit paranoid, but gradually his plans are revealed as grandiose hubris. They also see a few of the living aliens which, like their machines, walk on three legs. They also discover what the aliens do to captive people, and see a sinister red weed spreading outward from where the war machines erupted from the ground.

We know only what Ray knows, see only what Ray sees, a discipline that gives an occasionally unnerving sense of reality to the proceedings. This is not a tale of our heroes bravely confronting the alien invaders, it’s the story of a frightened man trying to save his children, trying to get out from under the tripods’ feet. There’s an overpowering sense of the country falling apart around them, and it’s indeed strange and yet credible to see throngs of Americans, bereft of cars, shuffling along the highway, some shoving grocery carts, others with wagons, a lucky few with horses. We’ve seen scenes like these in televised news before—but this time it’s us.

Koepp relied on the novel for many of his ideas, including a gruesome bit with crows near the end. But Spielberg also offers a few graceful nods to the classic 1953 “The War of the Worlds.” Someone says that when the tripods start moving, there’s no more news from that area—a line that couldn’t have been in the novel, but is definitely in George Pal’s movie. There’s an encounter in a smashed house that many will recognize as being inspired by the first movie more than the novel. The aliens themselves don’t look like Wells’ malign octopuses, nor like the Martian in the Pal movie—but they have three-fingered hands just like the Pal creatures, and one of those hands turns up in a climactic scene that emulates the Pal movie in a satisfying way.

Spielberg is a master movie craftsman more than an artist; he uses the means available to him better than almost any other living director (Scorsese is his only rival in this area). The photography is intense, dark and realistic; the sound is frightening yet crisp; the special effects, under the guiding hand of Dennis Muren and others, are perfectly realized and far, far more realistic than in any other movie of this nature. When they rear from the earth, rocks and soil cascade off them, and they’re enveloped in clouds of dust. But all these are like members of a big orchestra Spielberg is conducting. John Williams conducts his own score for the film itself; it’s typical Williams—big, bold and well suited to the images, but not particularly imaginative.

All too often, he’s been hampered by what seems to be concern that the audience might not like him, or what he’s doing, or fear that they won’t quite get the point. He damaged “Schindler’s List” by having the heretofore mysterious Schindler break down at the last moment, revealing he was really a good guy driving by humanitarian impulses. Spielberg failed to confront the lesbianism in “The Color Purple,” reducing it to a tentative hand clasp. For someone who so clearly understands what a director can do, he’s often stepped back from what a director, in the case of the film at hand, should do.
With “War of the Worlds,” he’s far less hampered by this caution than with any of his movies since “Jaws.” He wants to scare the bejabbers out of the audiences for “War of the Worlds,” he wants to excite them, create tension, make them fearful for the characters on screen, and he achieves all this with less of the manipulation than has weakened many of his previous movies. I’m not sure if this slight change in stance could be considered a sign of maturity in Spielberg, or if it’s a permanent change, but it’s highly appropriate for this movie.

There are some weaknesses. Toward the end, there’s a scene with dozens of military vehicles and soldiers—tanks and the like, plus jets overhead—attacking the invaders, but we never see their objective, and we never see the outcome, though we can guess. It’s as though Spielberg wanted to avoid a standard alien-invasion scene of the invaders wiping out all these men and their equipment. But we WANT to see a scene like that.

Until the aftermath of the ferry scene, the intent of production designer Rick Carter and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky was clearly to create a sense of reality, however heightened. But at the point when Cruise emerges from the cellar of the house where he meets Robbins, the film veers away from realism into a kind of old-fashioned, Hollywood artifice. The sets look like sets, a change that could pull viewers out of the movie.

One aspect that might be seen as a weakness but which I regard as a strength in this case is that we know almost nothing about the alien invaders. They’re certainly not Martians, but we don’t know where they came from, or even—apart from conquest—why they’re here. We do know that they make very, very long-range plans. But that’s about it. This, I think, is a strength because it maintains the intense, specific focus the movie has throughout: we know what Ray knows, and only what he knows. Occasionally, passersby talk about what’s happening elsewhere, but it’s just gossip—they have no way of knowing what’s happening elsewhere. (It’s a little hard to swallow that nobody ever found even one of these buried war machines, but it’s easy to suppose they were buried very deep.)

Although Justin Chatwin is well cast as Cruise’s son Robbie, we never get a chance to know very much about him as a person. He’s disdainful of his father, protective of his younger sister, eventually intent on battling the invaders personally—and that’s about it. He doesn’t exhibit enough specific traits for us to empathize with him, and is just as remote at the end as throughout the film. Miranda Otto’s character is equally vague and ill-defined.

But we do get to know Dakota Fanning’s Rachel very well. Fanning may scream a little too often, a little too shrilly, but Rachel is a rounded character whom we come to care for, to fear for. A terrible danger near the end leads Ray to a couple of extreme acts, one nearly shocking, that he resorts to because he now realizes what a father’s duties must entail. We buy this not just because of Cruise, and not just because of Fanning, but because of the two of them together—they interact more believably than Cruise has with almost any other actress (except for Renee Zellweger).

And Cruise himself is outstanding. Ray Ferrier is just enough like other Cruise characters that we can see a few echoes of them in him. Koepp has told interviewers that he saw Ray as Cruise’s character from “Top Gun”—only he washed out. He’s a loser, but a loser who has to learn to be a winner. There’s a lot of character work going on in here because that’s where Spielberg is concentrating his efforts, rather than on the spectacle.

The movie is at once intimate and epic; in interviews, Cruise and Spielberg both insisted this was the “biggest little movie” that they’ve ever made. That’s contradictory but accurate. What’s going on—the alien invasion—is on a gigantic, epic scale, but we see only Ray’s corner of the events. It’s like a movie about a footman down on the side of one of the artist David’s vast historical paintings. The painting is all there, but our attention is on this one small guy trying to survive these horrifying events.

And from time to time, Spielberg gives us these great big events. As Ray and his kids flee New Jersey, the aliens are blowing apart freeways all around them, with cars, trains and concrete cascading to the ground. Later, there’s a huge scene with a ferry: hundreds of people, cars—with screaming people in them—sinking to the bottom of the river. And yet right after that, we return to Ray and his kids, wet and shivering on the bank of the same river. (Which may be the same river in a later unnerving scene.)

Spielberg and his team clearly wanted a visceral, exciting movie, full of spectacle and thunder, but to watch the struggles of one ordinary guy and his kids to survive against all odds. With “War of the Worlds,” Spielberg has given us the most character-driven science fiction epic ever made. And one of the very best.

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