War of the Worlds (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's a longstanding movie riddle that asks the following question: Is it better to have a mediocre director and a great screenplay, or a great director and a mediocre screenplay? War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg's entry into the 2005 summer box office derby, can be used as an argument for the latter scenario. To call the script (credited to Josh Friedman and David Koepp) "flawed" might be charitable. The original novel, penned in 1898 by H.G. Wells, seems almost quant by today's standards. Although the changes employed by Friedman and Koepp to modernize the story are adequate in displacing many of the book's events to a contemporary time frame, they result in a tale that is rife with logical errors. War of the Worlds is not watertight; in fact, it leaks like a sieve. But, with Spielberg at the helm, we hardly notice the chop in the water as we're taken on a smooth and somewhat breathless ride.

It used to be that when Spielberg looked to the sky, he saw hope: the friendly, brightly colored lights of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the harmonious message of E.T. This time, however, the director has looked through the glass darkly. He takes the kind of menace previously found in the terrestrial-based monsters of Jaws and Jurassic Park and applies it to life amongst the stars. These fiends from another planet, which are closer cousins to the creatures from Alien than those from E.T., aren't out to make contact or colonize; their goal is extermination.

Friedman and Koepp have time-shifted Wells' story ahead by a little more than a century and re-located it (as a nod to the infamous 1938 radio broadcast) to New Jersey. This is a post-9/11 world (a fact that is emphasized by a brief pan of the World Trade Center-less Manhattan skyline), where the pall of terrorism hangs like a poisonous cloud over humanity's dealings with one another. Suddenly, all of that is about to become irrelevant. Man is on the brink of becoming a hunted species, with petty differences turning insignificant as survival instincts take over.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is an average blue-collar worker living in a cluttered house with a job that probably allows him to barely meet his mortgage payments. He rushes home from work one morning to greet his kids - 10-year old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and her 16-year old brother, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) - who are being dropped off by his ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), for a weekend visit. Ray doesn't have the best relationship with his offspring, and his deficiencies as a father are immediately apparent. But this isn't a normal day. Before it has ended, bizarre lightning storms have caused gigantic alien tripods to explode from beneath the ground and entire towns are being leveled. Ray grabs his kids and takes them on a frantic roadtrip to find their mother. But, in a world where nothing can stop the mechanical monsters and humans are turning on humans for basic necessities, where can safety be found?

War of the Worlds may not stand up well to careful inspection and it may not be the smartest science fiction film brought to the screen (although, when considering movies such as the like-themed Independence Day, it's far from the dumbest), but it is an intense, visceral experience. The feeling is very Jurassic Park-like with outclassed humans fleeing for their lives from unstoppable behemoths. The roar of the tripods, when sent blaring through theater speakers, is genuinely scary, and John Williams' disharmonious score emphasizes dread. This is as "hard" as a PG-13 rating gets. The only thing that saves War of the Worlds from earning an R is that many of the on-screen deaths are the result of vaporization rather than something more gruesome.

For the majority of the film's nearly two-hour running length, Spielberg propels us from one "out of the frying pan, into the fire" situation to another. The film is as relentless as its villains, only occasionally allowing us to catch our breaths before once again elevating the level of suspense. Along the way, War of the Worlds finds time for a little social commentary - how dire circumstances can bring out both the base and elevated aspects of human nature. We see the mob mentality and instances of selfless bravery. And, much later, we understand the extent to which a father will go to protect his daughter.

Spielberg has populated his film with vivid images. The mass destruction one expects from a movie of this sort doesn't leave much of an impact - we have seen houses, bridges, and roadways blasted into rubble before. But the simpler scenes - such as a mass of dead bodies floating downstream on a quiet river - become lodged in the memory. Of all the striking moments to appear on the screen, that one affected me the most deeply, as the serenity of the moment is slowly transformed to horror.

The ending is weak, with everything being resolved in a few minutes. Although, to be fair, the aliens (they are not "Martians" in this movie) are felled in the same manner as in the book, and Spielberg probably does the best he can to make it cinematically dramatic. But those expecting the heroism of films like Independence Day and Armageddon won't find it here. In fact, War of the Worlds is a misnomer. This isn't war, it's slaughter. It's about fighting to survive, not fighting the enemy.

Tom Cruise is fine as Ray, and he effectively brings his character along the arc from callous, self-centered absentee-father to caring parent. Since the emotional core of War of the Worlds centers on the relationship between Ray, Rachel, and Robbie, this is a key performance. Dakota Fanning is effective looking terrified and shrieking, although that's about all she is allowed to do. Rachel's limitations are more a function of the material than Fanning's acting. Robbie is annoying (one could argue that he's a typical, moody teenager, but the irritating aspects of his personality could have been toned down), but Justin Chatwin probably can't be faulted for that. The only other actors with significant screen time are a pregnant Miranda Otto and Tim Robbins as a slightly unhinged survivalist. Morgan Freeman provides opening and closing narration, although he never appears.

War of the Worlds ends up being part-disaster film and part-monster movie, and there's more horror than science fiction. The kinship to the brasher, rah-rah Independence Day is obvious but there's also a little Godzilla (the Japanese one, not the American one) to be found here. And there are times of simmering tension, such as the lengthy sequence in which an alien "eyestalk" searches out survivors. (This recalls the spider search scene in Minority Report.) Also, by keeping the movie essentially first-person, with the camera remaining with the Tom Cruise character, Spielberg enhances the immediacy and personal nature of the struggle. Showing cities around the globe being destroyed might have been more spectacular, but it would have undermined the director's intention to follow this family unit. War of the Worlds is not vintage Spielberg, and it's on the grim side for a summer action blockbuster, but it's worth the time and money invested.

War of the Worlds (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1