War of the Worlds
Steven Spielberg, USA, 2005
"Is it terrorists?" asks 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) as she,
rebellious teenage brother Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and harried father Ray
(Tom Cruise) race away in a carjacked minivan from their home of Bayonne,
New Jersey, dramatic fireballs exploding behind them. Later, images of
flyers tacked to a board depicting missing people and clothing are seen
slowly wafting to the ground. Here, then, is the post-9/11 War of the
Worlds, a cinematic spectacle as catharsis that challenges American
audiences to confront their deepest fears while ostensibly munching popcorn
and riding the rollercoaster thrill ride of a big summer blockbuster.
But Steven Spielberg’s updating of H.G. Wells’ famous sci-fi novel is no
summer popcorn flick. A graven Saving Private Ryan solemnity pervades
throughout, and, aside from sketchily shoehorned-in rumor and innuendo, there’s no sense of the global scale of the threat -- as
seen in similar alien invasion films like the populist can-do-ism of
Independence Day and Tim Burton’s delightfully wicked Mars Attacks!
Spielberg’s benevolent Reese's Pieces-munching E.T. universe has
darkened considerably since the events of September 11. Thus, we see aliens
stalking across the land in their spidery, three-legged machines, vaporizing
defenseless humans. Most importantly, we witness people fleeing, just as
bewildered New Yorkers fled from the crumbling Twin Towers nearly four years
ago. There’s no American know-how, no inspiring examples of red, white and
blue ingenuity -- just panic, desperation and cowering fear.
And therein lies the problem. Spielberg’s reflection on the national mood in
light of recent calamities should not be summer blockbuster fare. This is
autumnal, Oscar-positioned subject matter. But, in casting mega-star Cruise
and revisiting a well-known classic work, Spielberg obligates himself to
providing the paying audience with a “wow” experience, where style trumps
substance and patrons leave the theatre discussing cool scenes and
groundbreaking special effects. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds has
moments of undeniable visual brilliance, such as the alien crafts moving
over the water and stamping across the landscape, but the effects are
neither groundbreaking nor particularly memorable. The all-important “wow”
effect has been stifled by dread. It’s as if Spielberg (and screenwriter
David Koepp) self-consciously avoided unrestrained thrills out of respect
for the lives lost since the vaguely defined “War on Terror” began.
In place of Indiana Jones-worthy set pieces, we get Tom Cruise and his two
children moving from one hiding place to the next, hunkering down and
avoiding the seemingly implacable bad guys. In that respect, the film
follows Wells’ book faithfully. But Cruise’s dockworker Ray is no
"philosophical writer," as Wells’ eyewitness narrator was. He’s just a
hard-working, divorced average Joe, a somewhat distant dad trying to earn
the respect of his children. He doesn’t have any deep thoughts on what might
be happening, and he certainly hasn’t a clue as to what can be done to stop
the invaders. If Spielberg and Koepp had plumbed the darker depths of
the effects of apocalyptic tragedy on the common man, War of the Worlds might have
had something deeper to say about the post-9/11 world.
But it doesn’t. Cruise’s Ray kills when he has to kill, and protectively
watches over his children. He is primal instinct personified. (This is
explicitly revealed in a bafflingly illogical showdown with a paranoid
bumpkin played by Tim Robbins.) Reductionism in the service of saying
something greater, however, this is not. We understand Ray’s motivations,
but we aren’t particularly enlightened by them. He does what he has to in
order to survive -- fair enough. But it doesn’t take much artful shading to
strip away a character to its fundamental core.
Wells’ novel presented a dry academic look back on the events, cogently
expressing a distinctly late-Victorian viewpoint on imperialism and
eco-horrors brought on by the industrial boom. Orson Welles’ legendary 1938
radio broadcast offered inventive (if panic-inducing) fake news reports that
presaged the growing threat from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Hollywood’s 1953 adaptation managed to be highly entertaining while cleverly
prodding Cold War fears about the Red Menace. Spielberg’s War of the
Worlds, however, is a joyless, self-serious exercise in surface grief
that offers few insights into a people under siege. With Saving Private
Ryan and especially Schindler’s List, Spielberg has proven he can
make somber, thought-provoking films. War of the Worlds, by contrast,
simply doesn’t demand such social commentary to be effective. A
dash of the old escapist Spielberg would have been a better tonic for
these troubled times.
design copyright © 2001-2011 Shaking Through.net. All original artwork,
photography and text used on this site is the sole copyright of the respective creator(s)/author(s). Reprinting, reposting, or citing any of the original
content appearing on this site without the written consent of Shaking
Through.net is strictly forbidden.