Thursday, June 30, 2005

War of the Worlds

An interesting observation to open this review of War of the Worlds, the latest film by Steven Spielberg and his third concerned thematically with alien visitors. Over the course of his three alien movies, starting with Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 and continuing with E.T. in 1982, the role of the aliens themselves has done a complete 180. Most obviously, they have changed from friendly, or at least non-threatening, to insane with bloodlust.

But their essential nature has changed along with their moral outlook. In Close Encounters, the aliens are cold, distant figures. We never see them clearly on screen. They possess technology far beyond our own, and communicate with us only through a simple pattern of notes and colors. We can comprehend them, their civilization and their ways in the same way that an ant can understand the notion of The Renaissance. That is, not much at all.

By the time you get to E.T., the aliens have a lot more in common with Earthlings. E.T. himself comes to represent childlike innocence and anxiety, as he is beset by government agents and stranded away from his family. There's still an odd, uncanny element to alien-human relationships (that strange bond between Elliott and E.T., for example, is never meant to be fully understood in practical terms). But E.T. makes an emotional connection between humans and extra-terrestrials, implied that despite our differences, we are all self-aware, conscious beings with feelings and knowledge to share.

War of the Worlds presents us with aliens that look different and possess far superior technology, but are essentially human in every other way. They are curious, they are emotional, they are mean-tempered and self-involved. And man, are they ever bloodthirsty. In other words, they're like a sleeker, more tentacled version of us, which makes the story of Earth's invasion all the more chilling. We know they will be thorough, methodical and calculating, because that's how we behave when we're planning to invade somewhere.

With this film, Spielberg crowns himself the King of the Action Set Piece. There is not a filmmaker alive right now who sets down intense, exciting, thrilling spectacles with more regularity and apparent ease than Steve. Many people disagreed with me that Minority Report ranks among his finest work, but the success of its nimble action sequences (particularly one in which robot spiders scan for Tom Cruise, who's blinded in an ice-filled bathtub) is undeniable.

War of the Worlds takes this same intensity and craftsmanship and applies it to sequences of a massively huge scale. The entire film is told from hero Ray Ferrier's (Cruise) perspective, so we don't get to see the worldwide consequences of alien attacks, but the entire movie is essentially a relentless 2 hour chase. And what is shown here is absolutely incredible, immaculate special effects work teamed with Spielberg's assured, veteran's eye for detail, pacing and composition.

An early scene finds Ferrier outrunning an alien "tripod," a large killing machine that burrows up from beneath the ground, firing a death ray that vaporizes people (and buildings and cars and anything else it touches) on contact. Ferrier darts in between people as they vaporize, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's camera swerves and veers around the destruction, giving the entire scene a "you are there" kind of immediacy. (In some ways, it's similar to the effect he and Spielberg brought to the battle sequences in Saving Private Ryan.)

In perhaps the movie's best overall segment, Ferrier and his precocious daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, in a performance that mainly avoids the shrillness of most precocious child performances) hide out in the basement lair of screwy survivalist Marvin Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Spielberg takes his time in establishing Ogilby's decrepit bunker before bringing the hammer down. When the actual aliens start snooping around, within inches of Ray and Rachel's hiding spot, it's a really wonderful moment that matches the terrific Jurassic Park "raptors in the kitchen" scene.

If I were to complain about War of the Worlds, and I think I will, albeit briefly, I would say it's almost too episodic in nature. What the movie really needs is central idea, a core concept to push the action ahead. As it stands, we basically jump from segment to segment. Ray, Rachel and his disaffected teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin, in what I suspect will be his breakthrough performance) race from New York to Boston, one step ahead of an alien invasion, to get the kids back to their worried mother (Miranda Otto, of Lord of the Rings fame).

It's pretty familiar material, and considering that the mother's death seems almost assured from 20 minutes into the movie, I found it hard to maintain interest in that side of the narrative at all. I mean, New York is nearly liquified - it's only through tremendous luck that Ray and his kids get out alive. What are the chances his wife and everything else in Boston is A-OK? And what does it matter if the kids see their mom alive again anyway, when it appears the whole world will be destroyed?

Worse yet, Spielberg and writers David Koepp and Josh Friedman plug in a perfunctory sub-plot about Ray's emotional distance from his kids. Moriarty in his less favorable but still worthwhile review over at Aint It Cool News has called this the "Bad Dad" plot, and that's fairly accurate. Basically, Ray and his wife are divorced, the kids prefer their new stepdad to Ray, he's never around for them, and he's not a part of their life.

At first, the kids resent Ray and even reject his help in escaping the aliens but over teh course of the film...blah blah blah. You get it. It never amounts to much, and it doesn't really enhance anything or make the movie more entertaining or deep. In a film that's otherwise pretty tight, it's sloppy and uninteresting.

But thankfully, it's a minor distraction, and as I said, the whole "Bad Dad" business is basically jettisoned as the film really kicks into high gear. I won't say too much more about the specific action stuff, but this is the most disturbing, violent and dark science-fiction Spielberg has ever filmed by far. The movie is quite scary, and surprisingly bleak for a guy that tends to come off like an eternal optimist.

If it's not quite as thrilling from a storytelling aspect as the finest Spielberg films (I mean, marvelously entertaining as War of the Worlds is, it ain't Jaws), I didn't really care while actually watching the film.

I've heard it argued in a few places that the movie offers some sort of post-9/11 analysis from Spielberg, and it is clearly a film of its time that's aware of the cultural mood in America right now. There is, for starters, an acknowledgement that the alien attack resembles in some small ways a terrorist action. (Rachel asks early on whether the attacks are the work of terrorists, which got a knowing laugh from the boisterous Culver City audience.)

But the deeper issue is the dual approaches to invasion offered in the film. Ray runs into conflict, first with his son, later with Ogil,vy and finally with the US Military, on how to deal with the alien menace. Ray's instinct is to run, just keep running, keep his children safe as long as he can until someone else can figure out some way to beat the invaders. Not everyone shares this point of view.

Robbie wants to stop running, to join the military and fight. Ogilvy wants to hide out in his bunker, waiting for the right time, before unleashing an ambush on the aliens, killing as many as possible. Other people offer their own plans, some sensible and some outrageous. But Ray refuses to plan; his only concern is to keep his children safe.

Interestingly, Spielberg doesn't seem to actually take a side in this debate. (It may be that he's actually conflicted in real life on this issue. He's an outspoken lefty, but also a staunch supporter of Israel). He sympathizes clearly with Ferrier's drive to protect his kids, and hatred of having to commit violence, but he also respects the bravery of Robbie in refusing to simply run away from the invaders.

Spielberg wants us to confront this issue when watching War of the Worlds. Much of the film's visual imagery mirrors WWII movies, from the bombed-out buildings in Ray's old neighborhood to the lifless corpses floating down a lazy stream to the parade of refugees desperately fleeing the attack zone (who look remarkably like the parade of Holocaust survivors that ends Schindler's List). Though the conclusion of the alien invasion may strike an overly-simplistic note, this is not a light and breezy summer fantasy film by any stretch of the imagination.

I think, if I'm being honest, I was kind of expecting and looking forward to that fun, light and breezy summer fantasy. I didn't get it. What I got was something much more sinister, much more bleak, but also more resonant, and probably more intense. This may not be the whiz-bang eye candy summer movie (that's Revenge of the Sith), and it may not be the sweeping epic fantasy summer movie (that's Batman Begins). But it's the best science-fiction film we're likely to see for a while, and surely one of the most technically impressive pieces of work of 2005.


lindsey said...

i was looking for tom's arms raised above his head in a victory pose, as that's how i'm used to seeing him lately. i didn't get that either.

Cory said...

he did do a funny crossing-hand-slap motion though in the beginning - when the destruction first starts, and cruise runs into his son on the street, he says something along the lines of "if you take my car out without a license and without permission..." and then does this great crossing-hand-slap, as if to say, "you're dead."

it's the simple pleasures that keep me going.