War of the Worlds (2005)

WOTWSpielberg has always shy away from making films involving aliens that were actually aggressive. His was a role to make the aliens more human friendly, and kind, so it was quite a surprise when he signed on to direct this remake which featured prominently aggressive aliens exterminating the human race. As much I truly wanted to hate this remake–and I really did–I couldn’t deny that this was one hell of a film, that only Spielberg could have mustered up. It’s another remake, sure, but I actually managed to like it a lot.

I was surprised in the end that it worked not only as a summer time escapist romp, but managed to muster up some intelligence within the seams of the story. The marketing campaign for this was ingenious with commercials that actually kept the audience in suspense wanting to see what the aliens looked like, which worked well, especially on me. It’s a rarity that the studios leave aspects of a movie in the dark for the purposes of suspense, but it worked just fine. Now, I’m willing to forgive the cover of the film that looks mysteriously like an L. Ron Hubbard book, because this happens to be one exciting and intense piece of science fiction work that mirrors the sheer carnage Spielberg is capable of with his camera and a few imaginative ideas courtesy of David Koepp and Josh Friedman. Obviously based on the HG Wells novel (Have you read it?

You probably haven’t), Spielberg sets the story in the modern era, which doesn’t de-value the actual effect of the story at hand, because “War” is immensely taut. Spielberg fills this with dread and foreboding tension from the very beginning, and it often becomes so suspenseful to know that everything can disappear so quickly. It’s something I always loved about the “War of the Worlds” concept, and Spielberg trustfully brings that to the table. I was very hesitant to accept a remaking of my beloved George Pal “War of the Worlds”, but in the end Spielberg creates a worthy successor. From the  beginning, Spielberg begins stacking the dominos one by one mounting the tension as we wait for the final bout of carnage to begin. With often incredibly ripe atmosphere, we know the menace is about to come down on this planet and wreak its chaos upon us, but we’re never sure when, until it finally happens.

It begins with the roar of thunder, ends with the world, the extermination of our resources and then the attack begins. The entire cast pulls in some very good performances from Cruise who is surprisingly good as Ray, a deadbeat dad struggling to keep his family together, the always enjoyable Dakota Fanning as the horrified Rachel, and Justin Chatwin as Bobby, the oldest of Ray’s children who displays some courage while fleeing from the alien threat. There’s much prime excellent direction, which is what I expect of Spielberg. That said, “War of the Worlds” had a chance to become a truly grim and bleak film, but in the end it’s still just more mindless summer fare, and much of it is proven by the lack of any real character emphases. The characters here are set up in such a by the numbers fashion that I never felt I was given any true insight in to their minds other than what was established in such a short time. Each character is set-up by a series of concepts and never characterization that they really needed.

Cruises character is so superficial as well as Miranda Otto’s who is so utterly under-used it was a shame to see her basically make two appearances that had little relevance to the movie. It’s sad that Otto’s character that serves as a basis for the plot only becomes a plot device and nothing more. It’s funny how the studios were so intent on keeping the aliens kept in the dark for the appearance in the film, yet it became their downfall because we got to see too much of what the aliens looked like. What made the original so excellent was we never got to see what the aliens looked like;  here it’s over-shown to a ridiculous extent where the design is ultimately disappointing in spite of the odd attraction. The climax where we’re left with a surprise development serves as an homage to the original film, but it’s ruined by Spielberg who feels inclined to show us the entire alien instead of keeping us in the dark. It’s sad a movie like this with so much potential only ruins it with a story that more intent on showing special effects instead of characterization.

In spite of the flaws, there was surprisingly a great deal of incredibly gruesome imagery that echoes mankind in many ways that’s often disturbing. There’s a brilliant sequence where we’re watching humans being literally obliterated in to dust in front of our eyes, while Cruise runs for cover. Its such an incredible shot. And there are the aliens whom are so incredibly menacing and intimidating, they pose as a formidable threat to the human race. In one tense sequence, with the Martian’s serpentine-like probe begins looking around a basement where Ray and his daughter hide (reminiscent of the Raptor/kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park”), it seeks out survivors, and with its lights on both sides and reflective camera lens it surveys the home and every inch and crevice like a giant eye that could serve as a conspiracy theorists wet dream. With tripods, foot soldiers, and surveillance equipment, the Martians become an extremely menacing foe that has that human race by the balls. I was thinking that perhaps it was me, but writers Koepp and Friedman often convey some great commentary that’s snuck in under radar throughout the story.

These civilians first assumption on this situation are terrorists, which is constantly asked. It shows how much of a state of fear we’ve been put in. There are the news reporters more concerned with spinning a story than on the actual truth in events happening right there and then, we have the masses whom are literally clueless without information, we have the disorganized people more concerned with fighting instead of making sense of the situation, the young man so seduced by the glory of battle he doesn’t care what danger he’s in, there are jabs at the Iraq war thrown sporadically, and there’s the paranoid psychotic man more concerned with war than surviving. Spielberg, in his nihilistic glory he exorcised with “Saving Private Ryan” enlists much of the gung-ho stark direction that made this all so intense, and “War” ends up becoming a truly worthy entry in to the list of adaptations for the Wells classic. While the climax is disappointing, and the characterization and story immensely paper thin, this installment of “War” ends up as an exciting, intense, gruesome, and awfully subversive piece of science fiction escapism that Spielberg milks with all he has. With excellent direction, and good performances “War” ends up becoming a truly good remake.