A film review by Craig J. Koban
WAR OF THE WORLDS
2005, PG-13, 118 mins Ray Ferrier: Tom Cruise / Rachel: Dakota Fanning / Mary Ann:
Miranda Otto / Robbie: Justin Chatwin / Harlan Ogilvy: Tim Robbins
2005, PG-13, 118 mins
Ray Ferrier: Tom Cruise / Rachel: Dakota Fanning / Mary Ann:
Miranda Otto / Robbie: Justin Chatwin / Harlan Ogilvy: Tim Robbins
The genre of evil and malevolent alien beings coming to earth to destroy all of mankind seems as old as the cinema itself. As a matter of fact, it really is about 107 years old to be exact, and without the pioneering work of British novelist Herbert George Wells, then many of the other staples of modern science fiction (that we take for granted today) might not have existed. Clearly, the vitality of the themes of most popular science fiction are a stunning testament to both Wells’ creativity and unaltered and unbridled imagination. His work popularized the fantastical notions of time travel, the concept of invisible men and trips to the moon, and...yes…dastardly extra-terrestrials that come to earth for a less than honorable close encounter with humanity.
In 1898 a noted scientist named Percival Lowell was observing what he thought to be artificially created canals on the surface of Mars. Obviously, this was a theory that acted as a springboard for the public’s imagination at the time. Not only that, but it most likely was the catalyst that prompted Wells to forge his 1898 landmark sci-fi thriller, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. The novel’s story elements, albeit trivial and commonplace by contemporary standards, postulated a chilling concept of intelligent alien life that was not benign, but bitter and hostile and wanted to end humanity…for good. The novel was an unsettling and completely frightening work, which noted the invasion of the massive and seemingly unstoppable alien hordes on Victorian England of the time. Perhaps what made the carnage depicted in the book so disconcerting was the notion that England, a sort of super power of its time time, was reduced to rubble so effortlessly against their unstoppable, otherworldly enemies.
The book itself proved so popular that it spawned a series of excursions into popular entertainment, from Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast (still eerie by today’s values as it adhered to my very principles that often what we can’t see is more terrifying) and later by the famous Byron Haskin film version of 1953, which eventually became one of the most beloved sci-fi films of all-time. The last two mentioned works differed minutely from the original book, which shifted their respective time periods to the present day.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS also fostered many other films that dealt with alien invasion. Some have been fairly rousing entertainments (I am an INDEPENDENCE DAY apologist) whereas some have been all-out farcical comedies (like Tim Burton’s somewhat misguided effort in MARS ATTACKS!). Yet, films like ID4, despite its observable strengths and weaknesses, sort of took itself seriously without taking itself too seriously because, after all, why would aliens that are far more advanced than we are even bother with a planet as mundane as earth? Aren't there bigger and better intergalactic fish to fry?
Also, consider this – If you were from an incredibly powerful and highly developed alien planet when would you think the best time to attack Earth would be, if the time period was not a factor? I would probably gather millions of years ago when the world was not industrialized and populated by billions of human beings. Okay, so let’s say you chose to start an attack millions of years ago but instead of striking where the fire is hot, you instead penetrate the earth’s core and bury your war vessels deep under the crust and wait until the time was right, as if millions of years ago was not a “right” time. Now, you plant your ships and wait…and wait…and wait…not a few years, but millions of years to resume your attack when you think it's prudent (odd, considering that human beings now rule the world, are densely situated, and thus has increased your odds of resistance with their advancement in weaponry).
This all begs many befuddling questions on my part: Why would aliens wait millions of years to resume an attack? Why not take the Earth when it was in a stage of primordial ooze and was defenseless? Also, wouldn’t alien technology have advanced in the span of a million years? Why plant warships and then come back a million years later and use old technology to fight a more challenging opponent? Okay, even if one alien year equals 10,000 earth years, then there still should be some form of advancement in weapons. Hell, even us humans managed to go from bow and arrows to rocket propelled missiles in a thousand years, so you’d think “advanced” aliens would be able to come up with something better. Furthermore, if you chose to invade a planet and have the enormous patience to wait millions of years, would you not send out some reconnaissance missions to the planet to ensure that there was nothing to hinder your invasion like…say…earthly bacteria?
These are some of the endless questions that I thought of while watching Steven Spielberg’s largely redundant and meaningless remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS, and it is my constant fumbling with the logic of the alien invasion that completely hindered my enjoyment of the work as a whole. Sure, the film is terrifying at times and has some genuinely fierce and intense action, but Spielberg’s film is remarkably dull and banal with human characters you never care for and aliens that, albeit amazingly realized, are never really grounded in any amount of plausibility.
Now, I don’t expect realism from alien invasion films, but I do expect at least some development of the motivation as to why aliens would invade earth. In Wells’ original novel the aliens were Martians who needed Earth because, well, it was close by and their planet was decaying. Okay, sounds fine. Even in INDEPENDENCE DAY the aliens’ desire to decimate the Earth was given decent credence. They were locusts that robbed all of the planets that they encountered of their resources and then moved on. Sure, uh-huh…seems reasonable. In Spielberg’s treatment, these aliens are not really fleshed out in any meaningful way. Instead, they apparently want to destroy humanity and take over the earth by planting ships a million years ago (I am assuming) and then arming them in the present day to take out mankind. I have made it fairly clear and succinct my displeasure with this logic.
The screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp transports the novel into the present day where you’d think that our post-911 paranoia could have been investigated with a bit more focus in the film. Sure, when the aliens invade and one of the young characters pleas, “Is it the terrorists?” some sly satire emerged, but that was it. I think the script missed some real opportunities to tap into our current socio-political climate, attitudes and differences. Surly, if aliens invaded the earth collectively, I think that we would probably see current enemies as our allies, but I digress.
Anyway, the films stars Tom “I love Katie Holmes and I don’t care how much I shamefully self-promote the fact” Cruise as Ray, and average blue-collar divorcee that lives in a messy house and has some modest to severe attitude problems. One day he runs home to meet up with his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) who are being dropped off by their mother. Ray is a shamefully inept parent and has a unique inability to even engage in meaningful conversations with his unruly kids. It may just be another day for Ray and his problematic family, but when lightning strikes from the sky (several times in the exact same spot) which unleashes gigantic alien tripods that destroy and vaporize everything in their path, Ray then grabs the kids and desperately tries to escape town and engage in a dangerous roadtrip to seek out his ex-wife and sanctuary.
One of my major misgivings with this WAR OF THE WORLDS was in the handling of the characters themselves, which range from undeveloped to hopelessly one-note and one-dimensional. The performances by the main leads are fine and adequate, but they are given little to do here. Dakota Fanning is such a brilliant young actress, and she effectively conveys terror really well, but she spends more time screaming, shrieking and reacting to mayhem that she forgets to be a real, fleshed- out character. Cruise himself has rarely been so dislikeable. Ray is kind of an unapproachable and immature SOB that it’s really hard to care if he lives or dies. His son Robbie is such a sullen and angst-ridden teen that loves to yell at his father so much that he too fails to generate our sympathy. Ray and his family are also incredible moronic, so much so that it’s amazing that they managed to escape destruction whereas all those around them suffer. The more you watch the film the more you want the aliens to vaporize them which, I am guessing, is largely counter-productive to the film's intended drama.
There were many scenes in the film that emerged as unintentional groaners. I especially found it convenient how Cruise managed to be the only human being in his town that secures a working vehicle to escape, not to mention that he always manages to find a perfectly clear path through all of the carnage to drive through. There is also an illogical moment where Ray manages to strike through one of the alien tentacles with an axe after it has been clearly established that not even missiles can penetrate their hulls. There is also a completely inane moment that lacks plausibility altogether, where Robbie wishes to abandon his father and sister because he must “see” the mayhem that is just over a hill. Uh, wouldn't a teen, or any human being for that matter, want to just run like hell and not go towards the aliens?
The aliens themselves are not very interesting in their design or look, but I found the appearance and execution of their massive tripods awesome. The first moments of the tripod invasion are disturbing and frightening, and Spielberg makes great use of ILM and their wizardry. WAR OF THE WORLDS is, make no mistake about, a powerfully realized vision and is, some of the time, fantastic to look at. Early scenes of destruction are invigorating and powerfully handled, and despite my huge misgivings about the logic of the alien invasion, the alien look is fantastic and they populate many strong visuals.
However, some of the quieter moments in the film resonated even deeper, such as a sly reveal of hundreds of dead bodies floating upstream in a river, not to mention a somber and dark moment where Ray emerges from a house to witness the aftermath of a plane crashing in what appears to be the backyard. I also liked a small character, a crazy survivor played by a kooky Tim Robbins, who more or less behaves with a sort of disquieting paranoia and fear that most normal human beings would exhibit if they too were in the middle of an alien invasion. With all of these elements, Spielberg is on safe and confident ground.
Yet, he seems more interested in broad spectacle and massacre than with more introspective moments. He even manages to appropriate and blatantly copy his own style and shots from his other better films. One moment that involves an alien tentacle exploring a destroyed basement for human survivors completely echoes several shots from a similar moment in JURASSIC PARK with the preying Raptors, not to mention another similar scene in MINORITY REPORT with some small, spidery robots. This moment with the aliens manages to inspire a little terror, but the more you’re familiar with his past films, the more telegraphed Spielberg's style becomes here. It’s like he is trapped in the redundancy of his own artifice. He has been a gifted auteur at crafting great escapist entertainments that thrill and scare while penetrating deeper with its characters and themes. In WAR OF THE WORLDS he seems to forget that healthy marriage of the two and instead finds little room for probing social themes and giving characters weight when they are too busy screaming and running away from aliens.
The more I watched the film the more I also questioned why it was not set in the late 1800’s? We’ve seen countless invasion and disaster pictures set in modern times, so why not explore an alien invasion from the perspective of the people of Victorian England, like in the book’s original setting? There is something just more inherently frightening and terrifying about aliens invading the Earth at a time when humans were less equipped to defend themselves. A 19th Century alien invasion flick…does that not sound more fascinating? Despite my reservations about Peter Jackson’s upcoming remake of the classic KING KONG, I will give him credit for having the perseverance of mind to set his film in the 1930’s like its predecessor. After all, why make yet another modern disaster movie with a giant creature leveling a city? Spielberg should have opted for the same.
Ultimately, WAR OF THE WORLDS represents Spielberg at his most prosaic and mundane. It offers up an alien invasion that lacks practicality, human characters that have no color or wit, and it fails to have the time to focus on some social commentary (there’s a bit here and there on the darker side of humanity, but it’s largely vacant). I guess that when it comes right down to it I expect a considerable amount from Mr. Spielberg. He is arguably the finest populist filmmaker of his time and has overjoyed and excited us with the wonders of his other escapist films like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, THE INDIANA JONES TRILOGY, and even with more recent entries like his fantastic MINORITY REPORT. Yet, after pedestrian and monotonous efforts like last year’s THE TERMINAL and now WAR OF THE WORLDS, I am starting to wonder what happened to the director whose confident and assured eye in the past instilled our speculation and awe in his films. If a movie was like a sports game, then Spielberg’s past classic works were game seven playoff matchups in overtime. WAR OF THE WORLDS is like an exhibition contest without much intrigue.