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Independence Daze


War of the Worlds

Steven Spielberg, USA, 2005

Rating: 2.8


Posted: July 3, 2005

By Laurence Station

"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.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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