film review – WAR OF THE WORLDS

news: film review - WAR OF THE WORLDS

ET was cuter

LEAVE IT to Steven Spielberg to turn the end of the world into a film about responsible parenting. War of the Worlds isn’t his worst, but it’s a big step down, mainly because he can’t fully embrace the tale’s inherent darkness. Neither could H G Wells, who penned the terrifying story in 1898, sullying its elegant irony with a shameless bit of melodrama in the postscript. Here, Spielberg lets his humanistic instinct destroy what could have been an extraordinary film.

Wells’ novel was the first and last word on alien invasions, invoking the spectre of future world wars, cities reduced to rubble and genocidal extermination at the hands of aliens. In conjuring this, Spielberg fires on all cylinders, perceiving the horrors of Wells’ text perfectly. Taken purely at face value, it’s an impeccably produced piece of big money filmmaking, full of teeth rattling explosions, collapsing buildings and death dealing alien machines. As a drama it’s bordering on insipid, with weakly drawn characters. It feels like civilisation must be destroyed just so the true meaning of fatherhood can be realised.

Blue-collar dockworker, Ray (Cruise), his 15-year-old son Robbie (Chatwin), and younger daughter, Rachel (Fanning) are the central characters. Ray has custody of them for a couple of days while his ex-wife visits her parents with new hubby. Neither child relishes the idea of time with dad. Robbie is sullen and scornful, resents Ray for years of neglect, and has little use for his father – wearing a Red Sox cap in defiance of Ray’s Yankees one, and Rachel barely tolerates him. She and Ray play off each other’s emotions, trying to coax the other into a false sense of security – with these two, it’s not always clear who is the child and who is the adult.

Relations are tested when Ray wakes up one morning to find his Queens neighbourhood torn asunder by a menace that, according to Morgan Freeman’s opening voiceover, has long been watching the planet. Seeing Armageddon from the point of view of this ordinary man, guided almost solely by his perceptions, makes it terrifying. Spielberg serves up the devastation, highlighting the brutal horror of events and the price of survival. With the world literally crashing down, Spielberg uses state of the art cinema tools and computerised imagery to produce eye-popping scenes of destruction, chaos and horror. An airliner plunges to earth, a train roars past with each and every coach consumed in flames, and a ferry is upended by aliens spilling vehicles and people into the water.

Ray escapes from the chaos in the only car that seemingly works – his only thought to get his kids to his ex-wife in Boston, not much of a plan. Later on, Robbie leaves his father and sister, before special guest survivor, Tim Robbins, a one-man underground resistance movement, invites Ray and Rachel to take refuge in a farmhouse. Events have unhinged this guy and Ray must decide whether the stranger’s psychosis truly jeopardises their survival. It’s a creepy uncomfortable sequence, but probably the most human moment in the film.

When Spielberg attempts to marry the darker material with his standard family in crisis motif, the film falls apart. For at least two thirds of the story, Ray is decidedly unheroic, with Cruise playing him as a genuine jerk. Faced with calamity all around him, he does not suddenly become noble or selfless, instead he looks out for number one, dragging the children behind him as if they were pieces of excess luggage. However, they eventually give in to convention, and Ray redeems himself in a silly sequence involving a near-deadly brush with the aliens. This transformation, Spielberg feels merits carefully lit close-ups of Cruise with tears in his eyes and knuckles in his mouth.

The movie’s death machines, the Tripods, certainly resemble the killing machines envisaged by Wells, but it would have been much scarier if Spielberg had backed away from them and their inhabitants, allowing them to remain mysterious. Instead he gets up much too close, exposing the evil ET’s themselves, which look disappointingly like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, cross-bred with the infant aliens from Alien vs Predator.