Posts Tagged ‘War of the Worlds’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 21st 2005:

It’s taken a few years for anyone to follow-up the (qualified) success of 2002’s adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, but at least the latest film based on the master’s work has some serious clout behind it. I refer, of course, to the mega-budget version of War of the Worlds (they could afford a lot of things, but clearly not a definite article), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg’s film stars Tom Cruise as Ray, a blue-collar kinda guy whose obvious skills as an ace crane-driver and mechanic don’t stop him from being, as his children accurately point out, a bit of an asshole. His flat is untidy, his fridge virtually empty, and he’s completely unaware that his daughter (former Midwich resident Dakota Fanning) is disabled (or allergic to peanut butter, which is the same thing if you ask me).¬†Yet all this doesn’t stop his ex-wife (Miranda Otto, barely appearing) from dumping them on him whe she goes away with her new bloke. However, over the course of one particularly fraught weekend Ray learns the value of being being a proper paternal figure, of responsibility, of keeping proper food in the house, and all the usual family value stuff you can probably recite for yourselves.

(Perhaps that synopsis is a little bit misleading as the movie also contains a good deal of other material, much of it far from peripheral, about civilisation being virtually destroyed by alien invaders whose hobbies include drinking blood, playing the tuba, indulging in ludicrously long-term planning, and forgetting to have their jabs before travelling abroad.)

Once you get past the change in locale and the parental guff, this is actually an astonishingly faithful adaptation of the legendary novel, faintly iffy ending and all. The tripedal Fighting Machines reach the screen intact and are appropriately iconic, even if the Martians themselves (look, it doesn’t say they’re not from Mars, all right?) look a bit too much like the Independence Day aliens. I was quite curious to see how Spielberg would distinguish his movie from ID4 and the multitude of other War of the Worlds rip-offs that have preceded it to the screen. And he manages it quite inventively, by resolutely making this a film about a handful of characters caught up in a catastrophe – a personal film, rather than a full-blown epic. The story unfolds from Ray’s perspective, rather than that of a scientist or fighter pilot or the president – there’s no sense of a wider picture beyond all-consuming chaos and desperation, and the result is a pervasive atmosphere of nervy unease. Most of the big set-pieces of the Fighting Machines destroying cities and crushing all resistance happen off-screen, definitely not what one would expect from a summer blockbuster.

Equally unexpected is the rather linear storyline (basically Tom and the kids running away from the Martians for two hours). But this does give the film a certain latitude, which Spielberg uses to produce a series of stunning set-piece sequences, a dazzling showcase for his unmatched directorial skills. His mastery of technique is casual but undeniable. a longish segment where Cruise hides in a cellar with Tim Robbins (playing an amalgam of two characters from the novel) probably outstays its welcome a bit, but Robbins is always good value even if the scenes between him (6′ 5″) and Cruise (5′ 7″) vaguely recall Gandalf and Bilbo having a natter.

It would of course be inconsiderate not to mention all the references to Byron Haskin’s 1953 adaptation of the story, of which there are many (including the obligatory cameos by the original leads), nor the obvious allegorial overtones that surround any modern American disaster movie. Suffice to say that at one point Cruise arrives home caked in dust like a Ground Zero survivor, at another he passes one of those boards displaying home-made posters of mssing loved ones, and his son explicitly compares the Martian invasion to a terrorist attack. As subtexts go it’s not exactly deeply buried (though to be fair the film lends itself to a rather more subversive reading equally well, suggesting Spielberg is playing it safe as usual).

This of course doesn’t stop War of the Worlds being a very solid piece of entertainment, for all the illogicalities embedded in the story (some courtesy of Wells, who can’t really be blamed, some of adaptors David Koepp and Josh Friedman, who can). Spielberg and Cruise are both on form and the film has considerable novelty value. Definitely worth a look.

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