War of the Worlds (2005)

Death and destruction everywhere. Steven Spielberg sheds the usual cutesy antics. The typically warm fuzzy feelings we associate with “his” aliens are gone out of the theater with the first strike of lightning. And there’s quite a lot of lightning in the movie. What you’re witnessing is an invasion. What will follow is a story of a small family, trying to survive, trying to out-run, to stay alive. Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins and Miranda Otto scream and claw their way out of imminent obliteration by aliens.

This is not your Star Trek universe with almost-communistic moral values. This is not the everyone-for-himself universe of Farscape or Andromeda – which were more brutal but still offered regular comic relief and self-parody. This is not “Mars Attacks” – with green, bug-eyes short little creatures running around and zapping everything in their path. Well, the zapping is still there, but it’s done by huge, screaming machines, and it’s done in a more malevolent way. At some point a character in the movie says “this is not a war, this is extermination”. Precisely. Hence the name – War of the Worlds. It’s massive and overwhelming right from the start.

Steven Spielberg brings back our dreads and fears after September 11, and uses them to (almost) full capacity, stopping short of scaring us shitless. The characters on the screen are indeed terrified, and most of it translates into the dark theater. But, as I kept telling myself “it’s only a movie”, I was not quite as terrified. Really close, but not quite. I didn’t need more thrill, I just needed a little explanation of what and why was happening. In horror movies, the less explained the better – terror fills in the rest. In sci-fi, sometimes an unusual reason for some action can be more terrifying than if it wasn’t explained. This is a sci-fi that tries to go for a minimalism of a horror movie. Sometimes – it works. If the intention was to remind us what an invasion would be like, it’s easily accomplished. If the movie wanted to tell a story of survival, it was not as successful. The problem I have with survival stories is simple – I cannot believe that characters would follow some of the leaps of logic as these guys. Plus, some of the things that happen to this little family just seem more like coincidence rather than luck or skill. But anyway, they’re not me, they function within the rules of the movie, and they should be understood on that level as well.

The family is small – a divorced dickhead father – Tom Cruise, and his two kids – a little all-knowing girl (Dakota Fanning), and a rebellious teenager son (Justin Chatwin). The story is told from their perspective, so it doesn’t explain a lot of things (like in a typical sci-fi flick). They are caught unawares with the lightning storm (which awakens the machines); the emergence of one of these machines; the attack; and the subsequent obliteration of life. To us, in the dark theater it’s an expected formula – if the aliens have arrived with hostility, their further actions will likely be even more violent. But to the family, every new stage of this experience is a frightening blow to psyche. It’s startling to see how just when they begin to cope with the situation, it gets worse. Meanwhile, as I sat there identifying with the teenager, or with the helpless daughter, I kept sinking in my seat, biting nails, mouth wide open. I know things are going to get worse – but I really must see how the family will cope.

And this is where the movie succeeds best. Although the plot is familiar territory, the film makes us care for these three imperfect, weak beings, as hundreds even thousands die around them. By contrast, “Independence Day” and “Day After Tomorrow” were effective on global scale – destruction of cities, landmarks, armies. This movie has it as well, but I dismissed the spectacular explosions and unbelievable camera angles during the attack sequences. I concentrated on the three faces, three pairs of eyes, three dry mouths that gaped in disbelief on what was happening around them. They meet people on their journey – most of them also fleeing, some are trying to fight back or hide from invasion. They interact with these people – some encounters bring even more fear and dread into their lives, others – glimmers of hope. Their journey – from a busy, loud New Jersey neighborhood to a quiet upscale Boston street (the kid’s mother’s house) is what drives everything in this movie.

If you want to see explosions, you’ll get plenty of them but won’t be satisfied. If you’re in the theater to take a look at the aliens – you’ll see them alright (about half-way through), but there won’t be anything new in there. The only thing that will keep the story moving along is what happens to the three people, who they meet, how they dodge the invaders, and whether they get to their destination safely. It’s an unusual way to tell a global story – through the eyes of a broken-up family, but it’s very effective at times. The movie is heavy on Holocaust imagery – survival archetypes everywhere, with groups of people walking along highways, with abandoned cars and suitcases lying around on the ground, with burning houses, trains, bridges. This is heavy stuff, and most of it works.

There are times when the two kids out-act Tom Cruise – who seems to be getting by just on his smiles and grins these days. But then again, I’ve been impressed with Dakota Fanning for the past few years – she might be screaming too often in this movie, but there’s need for that, and she’s very effective at communicating confusion and terror. The plot does have a few holes and inconsistencies, and a few blatantly borrowed scenes from other similar destruction-oriented movies. I didn’t mind them as much – War of the Worlds is true to the original story, and it was about the mood and the tone rather than the invasion itself. Spielberg has left a lot of unforgettable images in my head with this movie, even though the acting and some of the plot shows lack of attention on the writers’ part.

The effects, music, sounds are all perfectly done – but this time they’re tools that propel the plot, and not just eye candy. The most difficult job was for the three actors to convey all their thoughts and feelings to the audience. Although I gotta warn you – the plane crash sequence, the burning train, the lifeless highways full of stalled cars – those images are going to stick with you for a long time.

In short, it is an incredibly effective thriller, but it lacks as a sci-fi story, and would benefit better from a more seasoned lead. Sorry, Tom – you can look determined, but it’s just a face, not acting. Check out War of the Worlds and see how long its visuals will haunt you.

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