by David Cornelius
Here we have one of our greatest filmmakers adapting the signature work from one of science fiction’s greatest authors. Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is continuing proof of his natural talents as a master cinematic storyteller. It is telling that the film is riddled with plot holes, mired in awkward sentiment, hindered by unnecessary changes from the source material, and yet it remains a genuine work of genius. This is a brilliant, brilliant movie.Those of you familiar with the H.G. Wells classic (or, at least, the 1953 film version, or Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play) already know the gist of the plot: pissed off Martians, looking to colonize, begin wiping out all life on Earth. But while screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp stick fairly closely to the source for the film’s second half (which involves not so much the war but the main characters’ viewpoint of it, as he struggles for survival), they wildly break away for the first. Not just the updating to modern times, either. Consider: the original (plus the two previous major adaptations) got most of their thrills out in the opening act, which sees astronomers witnessing something launching from Mars, something landing in nearby fields, something slowly, creepily coming out of the crater.
"Another slice of Spielbergian genius."
Friedman and Koepp give us a whole other introduction entirely. Here, we spend all of our time following Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), New York dock worker, as he’s stuck watching his kids while his ex (Miranda Otto) goes off on vacation. Ray’s used to the bachelor life, unsure of how to handle rebellious son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). But then a freak lightning storm hits his neighborhood, followed by strange tripod war machines digging themselves out from underground. Followed, naturally, by much of the running and the panic and the such.
A fan of the novel, it took me a while to reconcile this different beginning - so much of the tension came from the waiting, the wondering, the watching of the crater. But then I understood that this change fits perfectly for Spielberg’s vision of the story, which focuses, in pure Spielberg style, more on family issues. In order to root for this family, we must first spend time with them, and the opening as Wells has it doesn’t offer such time.
The suddenness of the attack, a far cry from the patient introduction of the novel, also helps bring this story into the modern, post-9/11 world. Just as the 1953 film version mirrored Cold War tensions, this 2005 spin mirrors fears of instant, unforeseeable terrorist attacks. (Thankfully, the film refuses to be a Bush-era rant of “always be afraid.” Instead, Spielberg and company study the more complex ways in which human nature brings out the best and worst of us in times of crisis.)
As for the other major alteration, that of the Martians having buried their war machines long ago (instead of just bringing them along on this visit), it has some rather large gaps in its logic, to be sure, but it still manages to work, considering the film’s modern setting. In an online discussion of the film, fellow critic James Kendrick suggested that the “they’ve been buried for ages” angle highlights fears of an “attack from within,” as in sleeper cells. While it doesn’t quite gel with the story’s overall themes regarding the problems with colonialism, it does tap into an underlying sense of dread that’s pulsing through today’s viewing audience.
But honestly, does everything here need to make sense? I argue that, in fact, nothing does. The scariest moments in the film are the ones that involve the unknown; we can take our guesses as to why some humans are being turned into alien fertilizer, or why they kill some of us but not all of us, or why they waited so long to invade, but the fact of the matter is, we just don’t know. And “War” is about the fear of the unknown, an attack by mysterious others whose motives are unclear at best. People are dying, and nobody can explain why. That’s some pretty scary stuff right there.
The film does not limit its moments of terror to notions of the unknown, however. One of the movie’s more effective scenes is completely alien-free: Ray and the children, having found a car that still runs, find themselves driving through a mass exodus of refugees, which turns into a mob riot when all of them decide they want the car, and they’re damn well going to get it. This is human nature at its ugliest, unchecked rage with no concern for anyone else. In one moment, it looks as if one of the rioters is about to drive off with Rachel still in the back seat, despite Ray’s pleas.
And so “War” balances its fears of unknown threats, both internal and external, with the question of what people would do in order to survive. Things get ugly indeed for the refugee mob, yes, but this is balanced later by a scene in which Robbie struggles to help a few strangers who are holding onto dear life, following a panic to board a ferry. See? We’re not all selfish.
Where the movie will make or break for you is the later segment in which Ray hides away in a cellar with a survivalist (Tim Robbins) who’s slowly going wacko. Things slow down to a quiet, menacing lull here; there is no action, at least not in the popcorn movie sense of the word. Some have complained that the story goes off balance here, becoming little more than a waiting game. I counter by arguing that this is a sharp area for character study. Here we have two men both desperate to survive, yet very different in their opinions on how exactly to accomplish that.
The film then becomes claustrophobic, choking the viewer with its lack of release. Watch how Spielberg mounts the tension starting here. This is a director relishing the idea of torturing his audience; like all the masters of suspense, Spielberg knows exactly when to tighten the terror, when to let the viewer breathe, how to catch us off guard. In fact, to call “War” an action movie is to misread Spielberg’s intentions. Yes, there are action sequences. But this is a horror movie, flat out. And it’s an exceptional one, at that.
I have not yet discussed the cast, and that’s because I’ve been attempting to avoid discussing Cruises’ erratic behavior as reported in the press in the weeks leading up to the film’s release. I’m not one that feels an actor’s real-world life affects his or her on-screen performance (consider the politics of Charlton Heston and John Wayne, or the behavior of Russell Crowe), and so I merely say this: yes, Cruise is, at least temporarily, completely insane in the guano sense, but just watch him here. His performance of a negligent dad who faces death and grows in the process is one of the driving forces of this movie. “War” would not work without a strong performance in its center, and Cruise delivers.
So does Fanning, as much as it surprises me to say so. I’ve never liked this child actor, whose performances in such unwatchables as “The Cat In the Hat,” “Uptown Girls,” and “I Am Sam” were the painful results of Cute Kid Acting Like a Grown-Up Syndrome. Here, however, she’s allowed to just be a kid (an overly cutesy one, but still), which not only makes her more likable, but it also cranks up the nailbiting once she’s asked to freak out and show fear. We believe her as an honest girl who’s actually fearing for her life, and it makes for a nerve-wracking experience.
(Note how Spielberg also helped the previously unlikable Haley Joel Osment into an admirable performer in “A.I.” Looks like once again, Steve has the touch with the kids, and can turn any annoying brat into a decent child star.)There is a reason Steven Spielberg is often listed at the very top of various “best director” lists, and “War of the Worlds” is one more example of that reason. This is a person who fully understands the art of cinema as a storytelling technique, and with his latest effort, he uses that art to create a breathtaking thriller. Spielberg’s list of great movies is too long to catalog here, but rest assured: “War of the Worlds” now ranks among them.
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originally posted: 07/05/05 15:31:21