Shouldn't a Spielberg-directed summer blockbuster of HG Wells' classic Martian invasion tale War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise be fun? This is actually quite dour and grim, and although the violence is non-graphic, the deliberate parallels with real life make it jolting, and a weird sadness hangs over the film.
Cruise plays blue-collar dockyard worker Ray Ferrier, and looks wrong next to less glamorous co-workers. He is divorced, and looking after his resentful teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious eleven-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) when the Martian tripods attack. (If they are Martians that is, as the film never tells us where they actually come from) Ray is an everyday sort of guy, and we see the action as he does: from the edges, watching on the roadside as tanks roll past, rather than as a major player. But even from his peripheral vantage point, he somehow manages to end up right in the middle of every big enemy attack, surviving by such ludicrously narrow margins that there's soon no fear for his safety.
Having an unexceptional guy as the hero leaves the film with a big hole at its centre, as Ray is basically selfish, uninterested in what happens to anyone outside his own little family. This makes him a typical modern guy, doing what most of us would really do, but it also makes for depressing viewing, as Spielberg shows us our own selfishness, although he seems to find Ray's actions heroic. I was longing to see a bigger-than-life hero, a Doctor Who, a Professor Quatermass, someone who could see the full sweep of what was at stake, and able to make the big decisions. Maybe such heroes are out of style?
Spielberg stages convincing Private Ryan style pseudo-news footage, but then he ruins it by adding would-be iconic set piece moments. A colourless, high contrast look pervades, which I suspect is less a stylistic choice, and more an attempt to hide the shortcomings of CGI. The newsreel type stuff succeeds brilliantly, and even when the computer fakery is obvious, it still works through scary juddery momentum. The big contrived images-to-remember work less well, as they're basically trying too hard, the exception being a ghostly blazing train.
The destruction in the film is a weird mix of the realistic and the unlikely. The film's at its strongest, but also bleakest, when evoking America's current disasters and fears: buildings blowing up in New York, dead bodies floating down a river, a plane crash, a wrecked train. It's at its silliest when trying to show us the invaders, whose technology is often illogical: they can blast fleeing crowds with a killer beam, but can only target one person at a time. They can't scan a house to see if there's anyone there, they can only send a periscope eye down to snoop around.
Of course, the reason for these drawbacks is to increase the tension, as the threat of destruction is always there, but there's always a chance of escape, a way to hide. War of the Worlds is nothing more than a filmed nightmare, which shows us images drawn from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, blames it all on an imaginary enemy, and expects us to enjoy watching it all. It ends abruptly, as if Spielberg had ticked off all his set pieces, and just couldn't be bothered to tie it all up: let a voice over handle all that boring stuff, eh? 7/10
Adrian Horrocks (November 2005)
H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (2005 - Latt)
War of the Worlds, The (1953)
War of the Worlds, The (2005 - Hines)
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