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Non-Review Review: The War of the Worlds

Stephen Spielberg helmed something of a loose science-fiction trilogy in the early years of this century. A.I. and Minority Report are still relatively contentious (perhaps the former more than the latter) when it comes to discussing the place of his modern output in the context of his wider filmography. However, it’s the third film of the three which I’ve always been most fascinated with, despite the fact it has been mostly forgotten on his somewhat impressive list of accomplishments. Never afraid to stick up for a film that most people seem to have just shrugged their shoulders about, I’m going to stand up for the not-quite-so-little-but-not-so-big-you’d-notice-him guy. I think that War of the Worlds is the best film Spielberg has directed in the last decade.

This invasion hasn't got three legs to stand on...

H.G. Wells original composed The War of the Worlds as an allegory for colonialism. The use of the word “empire” in those iconic opening lines is not coincidence, after all. His novel dared to ask what would happen were Britain ever colonised, and the might British Empire torn asunder in its turn by a more advanced and vicious civilisation. So it seems fitting that, like the director’s Munich, War of the Worlds functions as an allegory for the post-9/11 world. Much as Wells composed a commentary on the superpower of his own time, so Spielberg adapts the plot to examine the state of mind of the modern America.

It’s not exactly subtle. “Is it the terrorists?” several innocent children ask at intervals. A plane falls from the sky, shattering a classic image of American contentment (in this case, suburbia). There are makeshift memorials set up for the dead and missing, photographs pinned to the walls. Rage is the order of the day, to the point of blind and fruitless military action (indeed, it’s no coincidence that Japan are rumoured to vanquish the invaders first – despite lacking an official army). One character even reminds us that “occupations always fail” and the aliens adopt something resembling shock-and-awe tactics. The imagery isn’t exactly subtle, and is – perhaps – too on the nose.

But it feels right, because good science-fiction is pretty much always a tool for political commentary. It seems to be the function of the genre. I won’t pretend that this film is the finest example of a sci-fi allegory you’ll find, but it isn’t the worst, either. There is food for thought here, and it’s served up well.

However, the real attraction is seeing Spielberg at work. The dark comedy elements of Minority Report (with its puke-sticks and eyeball-related laughs) never really engaged with me, so it’s good to see the director play the movie straight. Indeed, there’s some wonderfully grim imagery afoot here – a river flowing with the dead, a man so desperate to get in that he peels a glass window with his bare hands. Even doing banal things like showing us Tom Cruise’s character doing his job or showing a family driving a car, Spielberg’s hand is fluid and cool. It takes a moment to realise how long and complicated the shot you’ve been watching was, and he beautifully constructs the movie around his CGI creations – shrewdly filming them as real objects and part of the set, rather than centring his attention on them as would be the temptation.

Of course, the movie is structured around Spielberg’s favour unit, the shattered family. Although he has a tendency to favour absent fathers, here the tale is very much of a father learning to take responsibility for guiding his children through an increasingly dangerous world, protecting them not only from external threats, but from the dangers of other people. In fairness to Cruise, who I find hugely underrated, he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, but manages to give his character enough of a douche-bag-y edge at the start (“that’s half of what I got”) to make him interesting and to invest the necessary emotion through the film to keep us engaged. Given it’s just him and Dakota Fanning (who was one of the better child actors of the decade) who carry the film for most of its runtime, they do a pretty damn good job.

That isn’t to pretend the movie is flawless. Most obviously it suffers from the same difficulty with the ending that the original novel did – to the point where it feels a lot like a deus ex machina. Sure, there are minor hints and foreshadowing throughout (from a small anecdote about a body dealing with a splinter or the namedropping of Osaka), but it’s still something of a narrative stumbling block and a rather convenient finale. That said, the magic of the book (and, in my opinion, the film) derive from watching the invasion at ground-level, experiencing the panic first hand without the typical “White House” or “government” scenes one expects of the genre. This is the story of the Martian attack as viewed through the eyes of one family unit. Those looking for an exploration of the ending of Wells’ original novel might enjoy Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. II, which is set during his original story.

On the other hand, there is one particularly jarring revelation at the very end of the movie which somehow manages to strain belief further than tripods or invading aliens. When you see it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It feels like a bit of a cheap trick which undermines an earlier dramatic moment.

The design of the movie is, as one would expect from a Spielberg film, fantastic. Even the tripods, a ridiculously impractical design (“… I’m no engineer and correct me if I’m mistaken, but don’t you have rather a design flaw in these things? Now, don’t get me wrong: God created a lot of useless, stupid-looking things on this world too, but he didn’t see fit to make any of them three-legged. Why was that, do you think?”), are somewhat explained by the biology of the creatures in question. Spielberg explains the tripod design by frame of reference, giving their pilots three legs as well (as opposed to the novel, where they were effectively slugs). To them, three legs would seem natural, a part of their own design – it’s a smart little piece of the film that I just felt like remarking upon, as I am wont to do. I’m a geek, so I love little touches like that. The soundtrack is wonderfully ominous and grandiose (though, let’s be honest, how can you compete with the Jeff Wayne musical?). The landscape design, particularly in the latter sections, is wonderful – I’d go so far as to describe it as “Burton-esque”, with the film consciously departing its facsimile of the real world and embracing the grim fantasy of what is occurring.

I accept that I enjoy War of the Worlds a lot more than most. Spielberg made a conscious effort to “go darker” with his movies this decade, particularly his opening salvo of science fiction. Perhaps it makes sense, reflecting the uncertainty of the times. For me, War of the Worlds is the movie which best succeeds at this. It’s gloomy, it’s depressing – and it cheats its audience with an ending it has earned – but it’s also wonderfully macabre and eerily beautiful in a way. It’s odd to see an action-based movie with so melancholy a tone – this level of darkness is arguably best preserved from dramas like The Road – but I appreciate the novelty of an apocalyptic blockbuster played straight. No winks to the audience, no smiling – just darkness and gloom. War of the Worlds is a quirky film, but it’s one that easily distinguishes itself from the rake of big budget blockbusters.

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11 Responses

  1. God. I loved this movie. Freakin’ loved it. Loved it’s darkness, loved the execution of Speilberg’s ability to emote realism and develop characters in the midst of extratordinary circumstances and was on the edge of my seat with fear and anticipation. Then they meet Tim Robbins. It felt every scene after that was absolute shit. The first two acts of this film were so good that I still have difficulty comprehending how I could have enjoyed that part so much and have the movie destroyed for me. I think I lacked the respect you gave this film in my review (I wrote eons ago) because I was so angry at the disappointment it delivered.

    An utter shame, but still worth watching that first half.

    • I don’t know, I liked it after that point as well, but it’s the first two thirds which are just really effective (in my opinion).

  2. Yeah… I’m a BIG fan of WOTW. This film gets no love… and I think people focus on the end too much when this is a story of people trying to survive and reconnect amongst catastrophe.
    I also wanted to reply on AI. I too was not a fan of the film. Is still the only film where I actually left the theater half way thru… mind you, I had a hot date lined up with my future wife and was pretty anxious! 🙂
    I digress… it was based off Kubrick’s unfinished script so I kind of give him a pass on that film and actually kinda commend him and the other people that helped bring it to screen in honor of Stan the Man! WAIT! That’s Stan Lee… CRAP! 🙂

    • Yep. I’ll save my A.I. rant for a review, but I am not a fan. And I think we should demand that Stanley Kubrick be given joint custody of the “Stan the Man” nickname.

  3. I enjoyed the movie as well although I didn’t feel it was great, just merely good. I would have liked to see more of the human confrontation vs the invaders. Also, it would have been so much more cool if people who got caught in the death rays were vaporized in a mist of blood or something really gory instead of just disappearing lamely. Finally, I can’t say I was a fan of Dakota Fanning, she really got on my nerves.

    • I think you’re right on the death ray front, but I did like the imagery of the dust on Cruise – like those stories of people at the World Trade Centre. As to more humans against aliens, I don’t know – humans vs. invaders movies are a dime-a-dozen, and the deus ex machina ending kinda comes with the title, I suppose.

  4. What scared and impressed me more than any possible type of alien presence in this film was watching what people are capable of when motivated by fear and self-preservation. Spielberg shows this well.

    • Yep, that scene with the car near the ferry was impressive and terrifying. That bit when the guy picks up the gun? Chilling.

  5. This movie was a thriller to many but how accurately did it depict the original book? Yes, it had the traditional tripod and death rays, but Stephen Spielberg left out all the important detail such as where the martians originated from and the main reason for being there.

    • Well, it depends what you consider an important detail. Life on Mars is infinitely less plausible today than when Wells wrote the book, which was spurred on by the (then) recent discover of canals. I don’t think the invaders coming from Mars is as important as, say, the idea of the world’s leading superpower effectively being colonised. i think that’s the heart of the story, and I think Spielberg stayed true to it.

      (Not to mention countless details taken from the book, like the mentally unstable curate or even the weird honking noise the tripods make)

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