War of the Worlds

Movie Information

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto
Rated: PG-13

In the wake of all Tom Cruise’s … let’s say, idiosyncratic antics to prove to the world that he’s just dippy about Katie Holmes and therefore simply cannot be gay, what is one to make of a couple early moments in his new opus, War of the Worlds?

First, his boss asks him, “What’s your problem anyway?” To this Cruise responds, “I know a couple of women who could tell you.” Do you suppose their names are Mimi and Nicole? A few minutes later, the movie cuts to a TV screen with the recently “outed” cartoon character SpongeBob Squarepants on it, announcing, “I’ve got a secret.” It’s kind of hard to believe these things are coincidental, but why are they here? What do they mean? Is Mr. Spielberg having a bit of fun at his star’s expense?

I’m sure I don’t know, but in a lot of ways it’s more interesting to ponder than the bulk of this generally respectable, but far from inspired, latest version of the H.G. Wells novel.

No, it’s not a bad movie — well, at least up until the last few minutes, when it becomes not just a bad movie, but a laughably bad one — but it’s rarely more than an efficient one that’s not helped by being Spielbergized.

The decision to update Wells’ 1898 novel to the present day isn’t really the problem. The story successfully survived this change when Orson Welles did his famous radio version in 1938 and more or less successfully survived it when Byron Haskin turned into a movie in 1953. Spielberg, in fact, has said that he wants the film to have the same impact as the radio show, and pays slight homage to the earlier movie by affording cameos for its stars, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, in his new version.

Just how he planned to duplicate the impact of the Welles version is open to question, since the public reaction to Welles’ legendary “Panic Broadcast” is difficult enough to fathom, stemming from listeners who tuned in late or were simply so credulous they mistook the dramatization for an actual news broadcast of a Martian invasion. Presumably, he thought that the pre-war jitters of 1938 that might have fueled the original reaction would find their modern counterpart in fears of terrorist attacks. The film certainly goes out of its way to incorporate references to terrorists, but since this follows Morgan Freeman (inheriting the profound mantle of narrator from Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the 1953 film) on the soundtrack assuring us that the bad guys are from another planet, the idea only works as a conscious reference to the present day.

In any case, what hurts the film is Spielberg’s dogged insistence on turning it into yet another of his seemingly endless middle-brow meditations on the travails of the middle-class family. Casting aging uber-yuppie Tom Cruise as stevedore Ray Ferrier is pretty far-fetched to begin with, but the movie comes complete with a separate problem. Centering its story on negligent father Ray and his rebellious (22 year old) “teenage” son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin, Taking Lives), and precocious daughter, Rachel (precocious Dakota Fanning), may achieve the desired effect of communicating the terror felt by characters who barely understand what’s going on, but it removes any scientific underpinnings and creates a huge “Huh?” factor for the viewer not familiar with the novel.

Is it easier to identify with a rather unlikable stevedore and his appalling children than with the traditional pipe-smoking scientist? Possibly. Still, it might have been helpful if there’d been somebody around to explain the red vegetation that creeps over the landscape or postulate a bit about how any of the invaders’ various devices work.

Even setting this aside, the whole family-drama aspect of the film is not only Spielberg 101 at its simplest, it’s remarkably beside the point and distracting. Since almost no one else — other than Tim Robbins as a kind of survivalist loon — is given any kind of a character, the mass destruction is so impersonal that it’s more spectacle than grim tragedy. Moreover, the three characters we do get are just not very likable. Ray’s supposed growth from negligent papa to doting dad — with time out for a few minutes of action-hero stuff — isn’t terrifically believable or involving. Robbie is so truculent and pig-headed that he’s impossible to like, and Rachel quickly goes from Fanning’s standard pint-sized Bette Davis precocity to terrified 10-year-old screaming every five minutes is just annoying.

None of this is terribly surprising coming from Spielberg, but it is a surprise finding Spielberg shamelessly copying not only himself, but others here. It starts out early with scenes glimpsed as reflections in a TV set (Signs) and is soon extended to the tripod war machines sporting a design that borrows from the shape of the monster’s head in Alien and the war machines incomprehensibly possessing an apparent organic sphincter-like opening that’s straight out of Evolution (of all things!). A sequence where human beings are captured and stowed away in cages on the underside of the war machines looks and feel like a holdover from A.I..

There’s just something more than a little tired about all this, but the worst of the film is the preposterous ending. No, I’m not in reference to the plot device that’s right out of Wells’ novel, but the whole family resolution, which is worse than merely absurd. It gives off the distinct sense that it’s OK to destroy 99 percent of the world so long as it heals Ray’s fractured family.

Other problems — mostly involving scripting conveniences — arise. The onslaught of the invasion knocks out every form of power, yet we see the emergence of the first war machine on the screen of a strangely functioning camcorder. People spend way too much time ogling the first war machine rather than reasonably running away. And it’s more than slightly hard to believe that anyone with a war machine in hot pursuit is going to clamber on board a slow-moving ferry as a practical escape route (haven’t these people ever seen The Giant Behemoth?), but, of course, it sets up a big disaster set-piece.

All this to one side — and it’s a lot — there are undeniable moments of raw power in the film. The war machines are impressive enough and executed with some of the most convincing CGI jiggery-pokery yet to hit the screen. The scenes of destruction are certainly impressive, and they’re occasionally creepy — especially the river of corpses. And, blessedly, Spielberg keeps the film under two hours.

The question is whether these are sufficient reasons to see the film, and I’m not sure they are. Yes, the movie is an adequate realization of its source novel and it generates a certain tension, but it’s also far from being the masterpiece it’s supposed to be. For folks who enjoy expertly crafted scenes of mass destruction, it’s a must-see. For anyone else, it’s apt to fall short. Rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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