War of the Worlds Review

This post is the complete review for Spielberg's new one, War of the Worlds, most of which was published in the Independent's Day & Night magazine last weekend. I tend to write more than fits the available space and there just isn't room for all of it. No such trouble here...but it is more or less unedited. I'll probably do this for selected films from now on, but I won't post everything.

War of the Worlds, 12A

H.G. Wells, the father of science-fiction, wrote “The War of the Worlds" in 1898, stirred into genius by reports of an Italian astronomer mistaking Martian rock formations for artificial canals and looking for a metaphor to carry a story intended as a warning about the rise of the Kaiser and Imperial Germany. A young Orson Welles notoriously adapted the story as a breathless caution against the rise of Hitler in 1938. In the 1953 film, it was the Soviet Reds. Now, I suppose, the warning is about 9/11 or the War on Terror, but I haven’t been able to figure that one out quite yet.

See, DreamWorks perfectly legitimate desire to snatch a massive opening weekend from a dismal summer season, coupled with their equally fervent desire to foil the DVD pirates (and stymie the potentially disastrous effects of poor word of mouth) means that instead of the usual leisurely cud-chewing that goes into passing judgement on a movie, there is almost no time to run the ruler over the new Steven Spielberg film. War of The Worlds was shown to the Irish press just two days before the public get to see it and just a couple of hours before this section of the Irish Independent goes to press. It’s a marketing manipulation as cunning as anything the sneaky Martians could have come up with but haste makes waste and make no mistake, War of the Worlds is a waste, being the first half a great film stitched onto the second half of a mediocre one.

After a suitably ominous, rumbling introduction, narrated over images of the workaday world going about its business by Morgan Freeman, we are quickly introduced to the blue-collar Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a crane-operator at the NJ docks (very macho) who drives a Dodge Charger (likewise) and lives alone in a messy house under a bridge. Given Spielberg’s obsession with divorce and the dissolution of the nuclear family, Ray must be a weekend dad and a deadbeat one at that. Shortly after his estranged ex-wife (Miranda Otto in another fleeting appearance following In My Father's Den) and her new husband drop his moody teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) off for a rare weekend visit, a strange and powerful electrical storm lights up the sky over his house. The power goes out, the phones don’t work and car engines have been disabled by an electro-magnetic pulse. Lightning strikes the street near Ray's house, and up from the resulting crater rises an towering three-legged alien weapon that proceeds to lay waste to the town. The fleeing people are incinerated by death rays and buildings topple in rubble. So far, so exciting. Ray bundles the family into the only working car around and flees to Boston, where the ex-wife is and where the family can be re-united. The ordinary-joe Ray has to battle marauding aliens, the hapless military and the raging mobs of terrified people to do the right thing for his children.

That’s the journey Spielberg is interested in here, a sentimental and manipulative series of separations and reinforcements that have been sanitised for a summer audience. The shadow of the Kaiser or Kruschev or whoever is ignored in the rush to say I Love You, Daddy. Strangely for a Spielberg film (he usually patches over his gaps and illogicalities with a glossy sheen) it's possible to pin down almost exactly where the story starts to topple over: twenty scant minutes of WOW almost ruins everything else. A massive set-piece battle between a troop of alien tripods and the overwhelmed military introduces a deeply suspicious and badly played separation which puts the mopey kid in limbo and Ray and Rachel in a bombed out cellar with a fellow survivor, played by Tim Robbins. The war raging outside, and everything else grinds to a sudden stop and we’re in this over-designed basement for what feels like a very long time, watching Robbins do his wild-eyed and desperate disintegration thing. Which is all well and good but the clock is ticking and the yarn is losing its pulse. Again and again the admirably tidy aliens arrive to snoop around for stragglers and the plucky trio outwits them. As a sidebar, it offers a few minor thrills amidst some well-staged set-pieces, but the overriding anxiety is gone from the story and the film’s focus has evaporated.

Spielberg again relies on his core filmmaking team of regular collaborators, led by director of photography Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter and a suitably ominous musical score from John Williams. Together they do supply some moments of real magic that only serve to highlight what a disappointment the remainder of the film is. A flaming train flashes through a level-crossing, flames leaping from every window: a beautifully realised image in and of itself and a shocking metaphor for chaos. A scene where Ray and the children are overcome by a mob is terrifying for both its immediate realism and its nod to the relentless psychology of B Movie zombies. What’s really noticeable here, and it’s to the films credit, is what’s missing. No crumbling Statue of Liberty (in fact, beyond some anonymous NJ bridge, no destruction of landmarks at all), no floundering Army generals calling the President on the big red phone. Cruise never faces off against the Leader of the Aliens and there is never a suggestion that he would be particularly heroic if such a face off were to happen. Cruise is a decent hero, but it's almost impossible to see a star of his magnitude play an ordinary man, even if he efficiently struggles to cope as his country collapses around his head.

Dakota Fanning – to many a far more terrifying prospect than regime change at the hands of bloodthirsty alien beings – does surprisingly well for a young actor called upon to show courage while remain vulnerable and innocent. Likewise Justin Chatwin who plays Cruise's grungy teenage son. Initially insufferably disaffected, the sulky youth is inspired to a sort of individual nobility by realising he actually loves his life just at the point where something is threatening to take it away.

So where's the problem? Legendary story, beautiful special effects, decent performances, a contemporary theme? If WOW isn’t really about an alien invasion of Earth, what is it about? Spielberg, whose parents divorced while he was in his teens, is more concerned with the destruction of one family than the obliteration of billions. Focusing on Cruise, as a confused modern father who comes good under pressure, at the expense of the grand theatre of destruction enacted a mile over his head adds an element of oversimplification and manipulation (that word again) that means the impact WOW can carry is fatally limited and nauseatingly self-obsessed. In being called upon continuously to face up to himself, Cruise can never face the evil of the external threat, and so we cannot either. The invading aliens become a narrative device, lying in wait for a million years before attacking for no other reason than we hadn’t invented custody laws, visitations or divorce back when we were throwing sticks at each other. The ending, rushed as so many other elements of this saga are, is a fairly poor excuse for a coda to the occasionally riveting drama that has gone before. But it’s only one underwhelming movie. It’s not the end of the world.

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