War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds is Stephen Spielberg’s best science fiction film since ET. That’s a long dry spell that includes two Jurassic Park movies, AI, and Minority Report. The first dinosaur movie was disappointing and the second one simply stank. We’re talking 1941 bad. The other two films were interesting but flawed projects that didn’t make the grade. I don’t count the Indiana Jones films as SF. But War of the Worlds is right in Spielberg’s wheelhouse and he knocks it out of the park

Spielberg’s genius is in the way he contrasts the fantastic and the mundane. His suburban dwellings have a fanatical devotion to detail that only someone who grew up there can  have. And then a three legged alien comes crashing through the wall and it is just as lovingly detailed and it’s movements are perfect. It’s a good enough effect that you believe it.

You know the story of War of the Worlds. Aliens (Martians in the book, but in 1898 H.G. Wells didn’t know that Mars was a cold lifeless planet) invade the earth and make quick work of the world’s armies. Since there’s bound to be one person out there who hasn’t read the book, heard the Welles radio play or seen the great George Pal movie, I won’t give away the ending.

Spielberg tells the story through the eyes of Ray Farrier, a crane operator on the Jersey seashore. He’s played by Tom Cruise, a fact for which all crane operators should be grateful. Ray is a charming but feckless character. He has parttime custody of his two kids, Robbie, a surly 15 year old played by Justin Chatwin, and Rachel, a preteen daughter played by Dakota Fanning. When Ray’s wife drops the kids off for the weekend, his refrigerator is empty; the kids bedroom is a mess and there’s an internal combustion engine sitting on the dining room table. In short, Ray doesn’t give much thought to his kids or to anyone but himself.

At this point the aliens attack New Jersey and several other places. Ray, finding hidden reserves is one of the few who keeps his head. He steals a minivan, packs up the kids and tries to get away. This begins a harrowing journey through an eastern seaboard under attack. Spielberg treats us to set piece after set piece, money shot after money shot. And he integrates them all as perfectly as he does his special effects. For example Ray and family get on a ferry after their car is stolen. They are trying to get to Boston, where the kids’ mother is staying. The tripods attack the townand the boat. Not only is this a spectacular sequence as people dodge energy bolts and cling to the ferry’s gate as it rises. This provides a great moment for the son as climbs the gate and helps pull the hangers-on into the ferry. And then they cut to Ray’s face which has an unmistakable look of pride on it. It’s good when you can use the crisis of an interplanetary invasion as an opportunity for personal growth.

I have a few quibbles. The ending is pure Deus Ex Machina but that fault lies with Wells, not Spielberg nor the Mercury Theatre nor George Pal for that matter. Also, there’s a scene where they get to the kids’ mother’s house. Even though it still has electricity, nobody thinks to turn on a TV or a radio to find out what’s happening. Not very realistic.

But these are small complaints that are overshadowed by the greatness of the rest of the movie. It’s always a tricky business comparing movies from different eras but I think this War of the Worlds is better than the George Pal version from 1953.

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