Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning and Tom Cruise in Paramount Pictures' War of the Worlds - 2005
Talk about a trifecta. The ultimate alien invasion story directed by the ultimate fantasy director starring the ultimate action star. When Steven Spielberg announced that he and Tom Cruise were going to be adapting H.G. Wells' novel, it sounded like a match made in heaven. And mostly it is. Spielberg's dark vision of alien destruction meshes well with Cruise's reluctant hero and the end result is entertaining, if a little frustrating.
Cruise is Ray Farrier, a crane operator and "regular" guy who also happens to be a lousy father. Uncomfortable with the responsibilities involved in taking care of a family, it just happens to be Ray's bad luck that the weekend he is scheduled to watch his two kids turns out to be the same one in which villains from another world decide to make their intentions known. Suddenly surrounded by terrifying destruction, Ray takes the children and flees, trying to make it to Boston where their mother lives. The journey is harrowing, made more so by the fact that Spielberg keeps us close in with the family, making the subjugation of the Earth a very personal plight. Along the way, our family discovers just how quickly civilization breaks down, a standard theme in "end of the world" stories. As the crisis heightens, the director neatly unveils hidden personality traits in our characters: a strong paternal instinct arises in our deadbeat dad, and courageous heroism appears in our slacker son. As will happen with any oppressed people, eventually the urge to flee becomes the urge to fight. But will it be too late?
Spielberg, a master of special effects and cinematography, gives the film a spectacular and terrifying look. His greatest triumph, and the film's, is that the aliens remain sufficiently alien. In an age where we think we've seen it all, the unknown is a precious commodity, and one the Hollywood all too often wastes on pointless exposition. In War of the Worlds, we remain with the family to the end, so our perspective is theirs. They don't know what's going on, and neither do we. The alien ships, the tri-pods, are huge and horrific and weird. Spielberg, through lighting and distance, keeps them from becoming familiar. The same is true for the enveloping "red weed" that sprouts after the invaders' passing. The audience is never given the impression that they could understand what's going on if they just look harder or listen more. That's what makes the unknown so scary, not that you don't know, but that you can't know. It was this same perspective, this intimate viewpoint, that made Signs so affecting, until its ridiculous finale, that is. Spielberg falls prey to cliche, as well, but to nowhere near that extreme, and remains faithful to the personal perspective he establishes at the beginning. This is the film's strength.
The acting is well done, for the most part. Cruise carries most of the weight and does well as a man on the edge, just discovering what's really important to him. Tim Robbins has a small role as an unstable survivor, and plays his role convincingly as well. The children, Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning, as the teenage boy and little girl, have pivotal roles, and do what they can with them, but, to be honest aren't written very well. Chatwin, playing Robbie, is relegated to shouting and sulking, mostly, and Fanning, a brilliant little actress, is given the worst role in daughter Rachel, a character who doesn't grow and spends most of the movie shrieking. These deficiencies are not the fault of the actors, but of the writers who apparently decided to give all the best lines to their stars. Coolest of all, however, is the voice of Morgan Freeman reading directly from Wells' arresting prose, as the narrator.
With apologies to Wells' wonderful story, there were some disturbing inconsistencies that bothered me at the end of the mostly entertaining film. For one, we learn that the alien machines have been buried underground for a million years, just waiting. My thought is, if the invaders, who looked upon our world with "envious eyes" were here before people showed up, why didn't they just take it then? It would have been a lot easier to take over the planet with no one around to fight. Also, and without giving away the end, (Spielberg remains faithful to Wells on this point - hint, hint) couldn't the aliens have planned for this contingency? Wells was alluding to the destructive arrival of Europe to the New World in his turn of the century novel, so picky little details like these probably didn't make a difference to him, but in this "enlightened" age, I wonder if Spielberg should have given them some thought. Overall, the film is a success, an entertaining addition to a whole library of fun Spielberg fantasies, losing a battle here and there, but, in the end, it wins the War. Grade: B+
War of the Worlds is rated PG-13 for scary alien violence and destruction, and language.
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