Thursday, June 30, 2005

War of the Worlds / ***½ (PG-13)

Ray Ferrier: Tom Cruise
Rachel: Dakota Fanning
Mary Ann: Miranda Otto
Robbie: Justin Chatwin
Harlan Ogilvy: Tim Robbins

Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks present a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Writte! n by Josh Friedman and David Koepp. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images).

I stopped buying concessions at the movie theater when I was about 12. I guess I had decided they were for people who were more interested in eating than really watching a great movie. For years I would fly past the concession stand on my way into the cinema like a native New York commuter passing everyone on the Long Island Expressway in the breakdown lane during rush hour. About 8 years ago all that changed when I met the woman who would become my wife. On our third movie date, she grabbed my arm on our way past the concessions and asked, “Could we please get some snacks?” Now, it is given that we will get a Sprite and a small popcorn (without butter) and sneak in some Reese’s Peanut Buttercups we bought at double the quantity and half the price of the theater’s from the local supermarket at every show we see. My wife will eat half the popcorn and hand me the remainder of the bucket and we will pass the soda and candy between us throughout the film. During Steven Spielb! erg’s latest summer blockbuster War of the Worlds, I didn’t eat a bite (or sip a drop) for the first time in those 8 years. At about the beginning of the third act I discovered a small wad of paper product in my hand that had at one time been the napkins I had grabbed as we left the concession stand an hour and a half earlier that evening. To call the experience of Spielberg’s latest dream project “intense” may be one of the understatements of the year.

War of the Worlds, adapted fairly faithfully other than the modern updating from the pioneering alien invasion novel by H.G. Wells, is a strangely simple story that is less about the aliens or the invasion itself than it is about the journey of one man to survive inevitable death. Spielberg (Jurassic Park) and screenwriters Josh Friedman (Chain Reaction) and David Koepp (Spider-Man) have opted to throw two children into the works, as is Spielberg’s nature; but they manage to utilize the children to effectively raise the stakes involved for their father. Instead of just looking out for his own skin, he must also keep his children alive and eventually, in an emotionally charged scene filled with the chaos of all out war surrounding them, he must choose between them.

Tom Cruise (The Last Samurai) plays Ray Ferrier as the total jerk many people have been perceiving Cruise himself as lately. Ray is not a good father and was a worse husband, who has the kids for the weekend while his ex, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings), and her current husband go away to Boston. Rachel (Dakota Fanning, Man on Fire), the youngest, has become the adult Ray is incapable of being, while Robbie (Justin Chatwin, Taking Lives) is the teenage son who wants nothing to do with his father and will likely grow up to be just like him. Robbie spews a hurtful tirade at Ray once they are on the run from the alien threat that is filled with enough truth to have the same jaw dropping effect on his father that the initial glimpse of the alien death rays has on him and the audience alike. It is a family dynamic filled with anger and pain that does not blossom into something better under the threat of imminent death.

I’m glad the filmmakers resist the urge to turn Ray into some kind of hero. Although his emotional connection for his children grows through the film, he never really gets any better at being a father. Nor is he a Die Hard type “everyman” action hero who expresses the raw feelings of the audience member watching the film but can still figure out how to blow up a building in a way that will kill only the bad guys. Ray is a true everyman who has no clue what the hell to do when faced with the unimaginable other than run for his life and do simply his best to keep his children with him and alive.

Spielberg does not vacillate in getting the action started, as an alien craft emerges from the very earth itself in a New Jersey intersection mere minutes from the start of the first reel after a dazzling lightning storm during which “the wind is blowing towards the storm… That is so cool!” With the trio of central cast members barely introduced, the aliens start frying everyone in sight with only their clothes surviving the blows, drifting up into the air in an eerie sight. Spielberg never lets the tension drop and in a shot that reminded me of the shot of the hero and children climbing over the soon to be high voltage fence in Jurassic Park, he demonstrates his mastery of using the camera as a tool of suspense. As Ray races from his town, with his two children, in the only working vehicle around due to the electro-magnetic pulse given off by the aliens upon their entrance into the Earth’s atmosphere, the camera does a 360 rotating shot from the front of the van, ! going around to the back and traveling through the van as the characters argue about just what is going down.

“Can’t you see we’re under attack?!”


“No, this came from someplace else.”

Spielberg also knows just when to slow things down to keep the tension up. As the flight from peril just starts to tire, he adds a new dimension of suspense by introducing the film’s only other significant character, Ogilvy, a man who doesn’t want to run away, a man with a much more terrifying suggestion of taking on the aliens head on. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) teeters on the edge of psychopathy with this character reminding us that whatever threatens humanity; even in our resilience, the monster of man lies within each of us. Does survival of the fittest apply to man more than monster?

Although so far War of the Worlds has been fairly well received by critics, there are some who have attacked it for being too much like mindless summer blockbuster fare, with aliens that illogically attack the Earth and a resolution that is a cop out. It is important to remember that this film is first and foremost an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel. While it has been updated, the storyline and images mirror the novel surprisingly well. Wells is considered the father of science fiction and created the blueprint for the alien invasion story with his book. While many other films have been made based on this story blueprint, such as 1996’s big summer blockbuster Independence Day, few of these retellings realize that this alien invasion, as with all good science fiction, is merely a prop by which a tale of the human experience can be told. Spielberg and his writers wisely seize this story of human survival, utilizing Wells’s images and backgrounds to conve! y it, and inject it with a broken family dynamic to give it even more resonance in its modern setting. And while the film does not spell out the purposes and logic of the alien invasion (that is not the story they are trying to tell) the materials are there to make sense of it. How can we say that an alien race we neither know anything about nor understand lacks logic? They merely lack human logic.

Some people dislike the way Spielberg ends his films with rose-colored lenses (not literally). These people will certainly find pause with the happiest possible ending Spielberg finds here, and I have to admit this is the one area I find to subtract points with this film. The happy ending is unwarranted considering the brutality of the story up to its closing moments, especially considering a bittersweet ending could have easily been envisioned. This is a failing of the film’s blockbuster ancestry. With Spielberg often being credited as creating the modern blockbuster with his 1975 hit Jaws, it really is no surprise to see many of the traits of the typical blockbuster here, like the heavy use of special effects and action sequences to tell the story. But Spielberg is a master of these devices and creates some awe-inspiring images such as the erupting Interstate Highway and the plane crash site. But only Spielberg could get away with telling a blockbuster tale witho! ut providing a hero, and only Spielberg could preserve the integrity of a work as important to science fiction as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

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