War of the Worlds
Just got back home from catching War of the Worlds.
Verdict: very well done, brilliant and extremely effective effects sequences, several nice nods to the 1953 film version, as true to H. G. Wells’ book as it could be given the modern-day setting…but with two major flaws that, to me, end up making this one a renter.
Firstly — and actually the most important — there’s no real heart to the story. As the film opens, Tom Cruise‘s character is set up as a self-absorbed jerk and inattentive (at best) father, and we’re never really given a reason after that to care about him. Sure, as the characters jump from one perilous scrape to another he eventually learns that (ta-da!) he really does care about his children, but the few moments we’re given that show his eventual growth are too few, not very effective, too predictable, and far too overshadowed by the surrounding events and carnage to make much impact at all.
The children don’t fare much better, either. Justin Chatwin is a surly, disaffected teenager; Dakota Fanning is a precocious ten year old who careens between spouting off lines more worthy of a twenty-something, and screaming her cute little head off and looking traumatized. In short, they’re fairly standard cookie-cutter movie children, and we’ve got no more reason to care if they live or die than we’ve been given in any other action-blockbuster-with-a-cute-kid.
Secondly, much as I appreciate and respect Spielberg for sticking to Wells’ vision of the invaders final downfall, it makes for a rather sudden and curiously unsatisfying ending. I certainly don’t think that he should have changed the ending (brought in Michael Bay for a third-act rip-roaring Independence Day finale, for example), but I do think that if he’d cut back a bit on the second-act “we’re in danger again” moments in order to stretch the ending out a bit more, it may have worked better.
The final moments still wouldn’t be a surprise — at least to those of us familiar with any of the prior tellings of the story — but as it is, he gives us a two-hour movie with about ten minutes of setup, an hour and forty-five minutes of adventuring, and about five minutes of “oh, look, we’re done.” It’s just too sudden, and gives no real sense of resolution. Even the final takedown of one of the machines that should be cathartic is rendered rather pointless by the revelation that it was dying anyway — just a few more minutes and it would have been out of commission, with or without the army pounding away at it. Had Spielberg stretched out the ending moments for a bit longer, added a bit more mystery to the aliens sudden vulnerability — instead of settling for a “fall down go boom” approach — I think it would have been far more satisfying.
Now, all this certainly doesn’t mean that the movie is entirely without merit. All the actors do fine in their roles (even if they are rather bland), the effects and devastation are quite fun to watch, and there are a few sequences that are incredibly well done (the initial reveal of the alien tripod rising out of the center of a neighborhood; the tentacle-probe investigating the farmhouse, which was quite nicely reminiscent of the 1953 movie; and the struggle between Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins as the aliens investigate the farmhouse).
However, the lack of any real emotional center and the sudden, unsatisfying conclusion end up landing this one solidly in the “rental” category — or at least, if you want to see the effects and explosions on the big screen (which I must admit, has its own level of enjoyment), make it a matinee.
PS: Why don’t aliens ever wear clothing? Or have body hair? Or come in varieties of skin tone? Why are they always smooth-skinned and glistening (if not outright slimy) with no uniforms, individual identifying characteristics, or so on? I suppose you could argue that any race advanced enough to be spacefaring might also be advanced enough to have gotten over our silly hangups about nudity (which I’d be all for, actually) — but really, even the aliens in this essentially fell into the “same old same old” category.
More random thoughts:
I actually think I prefer the alien machines in the 1953 version. The very fact that they weren’t huge, imposing machines, but simple saucers about the size of a Cessna airplane, but still able to move across the countryside, invulnerable and unstoppable, made them that much more effective. I realize that this conflicts with Wells’ original narrative, but it works for me.
If the EMP pulse from the lightening strikes knocked out all the electronics in the area, how was one bystander able to use his camcorder to videotape the emerging tripod?
Another thing I prefer in the 1953 movie: the consistent use of triangular symmetry. The tripods had three legs (okay, yeah, that’s why they’re called tripods…just keep reading, don’t nitpick me), moved in groups of three, the aliens had three fingers, and the alien machine’s tentacle probe used a single lens split in three (one lens each for red, green, and blue light), which was eventually shown to be modeled after the aliens’ own single tri-symmetric eye. While the tripods had three legs that split into three “fingers”, there didn’t seem to be any consistent grouping, and again, while the aliens themselves were also tripedal, they had five fingers (I think…I’d have to watch it again to be sure) and binocular vision. I think this may have been one reason they didn’t seem as “alien” as they might have otherwise — their face was a bit too analogous to a human face.
- I will give the new movie one point over the original as far as the aliens go, in that they were truly tripedal — three primary limbs, with what appeared to be three secondary limbs underneath the main body. If I’m remembering the original movie correctly, those aliens had four limbs — two legs and two arms. Of course, that could easily be chalked up to the limitations of having to use men in suits, but still…a few points for the modern version.
Regarding the final shot of the multiple alien machines collapsed across Boston: talk about poor logistics! These machines were huge, able to stride across vast expanses of terrain quite easily, had two (again with the inconsistent trilateral symmetry) “ray-gun” arms, and multiple tentacles for grabbing objects or people. Why in the world would they need to group eight or ten of these machines within, oh, a single square mile (I’m guesstimating based on my recollections of the final pull-back)? A single machine should be able to cover quite a few blocks with ease, a small group (of three, perhaps?) should be enough for a rather large area of coverage.
I actually have a very similar argument with one of the big battle scenes in Starship Troopers (I know, I know…it’s pulp, and I really shouldn’t be analyzing it…but I can’t help it). During the assault on Klendathau (my god, I actually have that in my head), there are a ridiculous number of huge fleet ships packed into a ludicrously small area of space. It’s no wonder the bugs were able to take so many of them out so easily, it was like shooting ducks in a barrel — especially when disabling one actually sends it crashing into another one because they’re so close to each other! Just stupid.
- Yes — this same argument can be applied to Return of the Jedi, when two Star Destroyers collide. The difference is that Return of the Jedi is cool. So there.
I was trying to figure out just what the alien beam is doing when it kills people. We see them get hit, then explode into a cloud of dust, sending their clothing flying — but when the beam passes over things like buildings or bridges, they explode, shatter, or generally find some spectacular way of falling apart.
My best guess (er…rationalization) is that it’s somewhat analogous to a super-strong microwave effect, where anyone hit by it essentially has all the liquid in their body instantly vaporized, and the sudden desiccation makes them “poof” as the steam escapes, leaving their clothing intact. Structures hit by the beam wouldn’t react the same way — rather, any metals would react violently (much as they do inside a microwave), which could explain things like the bridge twisting and shattering, and buildings suddenly exploding (while wood, brick, or stone might not be effected immediately, any metal nails, struts, or supports would, which could account for the “explosion” of the buildings).
It’s not a perfect rationalization, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far that doesn’t leave me with simply accepting that it’s because Spielberg thought it was a cool effect that was sufficiently non-gory to still land him a PG-13 rating while being able to use the falling, fluttering clothing as a visual reminder of the 9-11 aftermath in New York.
Speaking of the visual parallels to post 9-11 New York — what ever happened to subtlety in storytelling? Drawing parallels is one thing, beating your audience over the head with them is quite another. The falling clothing fluttering through the air, the walls of “missing” posters…Spielberg should know better. Or at least be able to do it better.