War Of The Worlds


Reviewed by: The Exile

War Of The Worlds
"The director produces an unbroken stream of breathtaking images which, even to our effects-savvy eyes, look stunningly real."

In War Of The Worlds, aliens invade so that Tom Cruise can learn how to be a better father. That's it. Strip away the stupendous effects, Morgan Freeman's portentous narration and more terrified faces than a recent shareholders meeting of Cruise/Wagner Productions and you have Spielberg's favourite subject: dysfunctional families in extraterrestrial therapy.

In the past, he constructed masterpieces around this topic; but if War Of The Worlds falls short of E.T. or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, it isn't because Spielberg has lost his touch with aliens - it's because he has no idea what to do with aliens who want to make war not love.

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First, though, we meet the fractured Ferrier family as Ray (Cruise), a stevedore on the Jersey docks, takes care of his two kids for the weekend, while Mom (Miranda Otto) and her new husband head for Boston. Ray is such a terrible father he has nothing in his refrigerator but condiments and sour milk, so naturally the kids are emotionally damaged. Rachel (Dakota Fanning) whines about the sleeping arrangements ("I have back problems"), while hostile teen Robbie (Justin Chatwin) shows his disgust with ketchup by stealing Ray's car. So far, so Spielberg.

But no one will see War Of The Worlds for a nuanced portrait of family life; and soon we can forgive Spielberg his dramatic shorthand because no one else in cinema delivers this kind of large scale visual artistry. As the sky darkens, the ground splits and the screen fills with post-apocalyptic chaos. The director produces an unbroken stream of breathtaking images which, even to our effects-savvy eyes, look stunningly real. And unlike Michael Bay, or Jerry Bruckheimer, Spielberg knows when to slow down, hold still and simply allow us to marvel. One of the film's most beautiful scenes occurs after the alien "tripods" have pulverized a fleeing crowd and all that's left are hundreds of pieces of clothing drifting lazily to the ground.

In only one sequence does the film stagnate, largely because Spielberg chooses to spend more than 20 minutes in a root cellar with a vigilante hermit, played by Tim Robbins, whose casting elicited screams of mood-destroying audience amusement when I saw the film. Hooded and paranoid, Robbins serves mainly to place Ray and Rachel in peril from alien "probes" - remarkably similar to those in Byron Haskin's 1953 movie - and to provide a reason for Ray to breach the last restrictions of civilized behavior.

Bracketed by Freeman's dignified reading of the novel's first and last paragraphs, War Of The Worlds remains casually faithful to its source, while doing little to update it. This is a huge mistake. More than a century has passed since H.G. Wells penned his story and today it's simply not credible that the only official force massed against the aliens would be a few puny National Guardsmen. Nowadays, we expect Marines, S.W.A.T. teams and anti-terrorist forces. We don't expect to see Ray bring down a skyscraper-sized alien machine with no more than a couple of hand grenades.

Lapses in logic aside - after the aliens cause electric failure, is Ray really the only man alive who can get his car running again? - War Of The Worlds gnaws mercilessly and effectively at 9/11 angst. The film is stamped with tragic visual reminders: a wall of "missing" posters, a sheared plane embedded in a building and Wells' "red weed" sprouting foully, like a biological weapon. As Ray fights to protect his children from a violent mob and struggles to prevent Robbie from rushing toward the worst of the fighting, Spielberg seems to be reminding us that the common man is both our worst enemy and our greatest hero.

A troubling blend of visual daring and thematic nervousness, War Of The Worlds shows Spielberg reaching for a darkness he's not really comfortable with. Wells' novel was an argument against human arrogance and solipsism, one that's perhaps even more relevant today. If only Spielberg had summoned the nerve to fully commit to it.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2005
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Earth is under attack and survival at a premium as giant alien robots gather for Armageddon.
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Read more War Of The Worlds reviews:

John Gallagher *****
Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2
Gator MacReady ***

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Josh Friedman, David Koepp

Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, David Alan Basche

Year: 2005

Runtime: 116 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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