The World At War
No one can say that Steven Spielberg doesn't know how to scare us: Jaws, Jurassic Park, and E.T.'s feet. Nor can one say he can't produce thrilling action: the Indiana Jones series and Minority Report. He can also reach into the human soul to find thoughts inspiring and equally horrifying: Schindler's List, The Colour Purple, and Saving Private Ryan.
The War of the Worlds is a story that takes all of these and rolls them into a film that is potentially a monster unto itself. H.G. Wells' tale has been spun into many forms and taken from even more. Whether from Orson Wells' radio play, to the 1978 musical recording (which is still eerie to listen to), to the 1953 film of the same name, Wells' text appears to have spawned the last century of Alien invasion movies. Written 50 years before the best known 'alien' event, it may have even spurred the eager believers into buying into the cover-up. It certainly was heavily drawn on by the creators of Independence Day.
I went to War of the Worlds with no more knowledge of the story than the musical recording reveals, and fully aware of the little relevance that would bare to this film.
It is still the trend to uproot stories and set them in America. I understand that American studios obviously see this as the only way they can sell a film to their native audience. We are very thankful, though, that Harry Potter is still English and that Middle Earth wasn't transferred to the American Civil War. I wasn't surprised that Spielberg brought the War to his home turf, but I think we've seen enough apocalyptic destruction throughout the USA.
I still think that movie trailers are a double-edged sword. The studios want to attract as much attention with them as possible. So, they'll try and use the money shots from the film to have the most impact. The problem with this is it takes the impact out of the sequence within the film's context. The shot of the bridge exploding and the highway and vehicles careening towards the houses and total destruction are hugely powerful within the film, but when they occurred I wasn't as impressed as I felt I should have been.
This is a huge CG film in a very small way. Spielberg constantly mentioned the fact that he wanted to stick with the characters rather than zoom out to show all of the action. This really enhances the tension for the first two thirds. The absolute horror of the slaughter when the tripods first emerge from the ground will stay with me for a long time. The popping noise, which may seem comical, is unpleasant when added to the visuals.
As an ardent non-fan of Tom Cruise I found his portrayal of the deadbeat Dad rather convincing. There weren't too many Bruce Willis inspired heroic moments that jarred me out of the reality of the moment. Though, I did feel that Cruise's character was a little too lucky. Far too many 'close calls'. No one is that lucky.
Dakota Fanning screams a lot. For a child who is famous for her mature performances of beyond-their-years children, it is jarring for a while to see her being such a child! Justin Chatwin is sufficient as the rebellious teenager, but is too easily forgotten.
The alien machines are stunning. Real enough to have an effect and spectacular enough to drum up the fear needed to make millions of people run for their inconsequential lives. The thunderous call of the Tripods still echoes in my chest every time I think about it.
The absolute chaos that encompasses the middle third of the film is Spielberg in his element. Crowds are scary. I'm not a fan of any crowd really, and terrified people are the worst. When the characters arrive at the ferry, the mayhem is nigh-on overwhelming. An open space that is totally claustrophobic. Then, of course, the trumpeting is heard and we have some Titanic inspired sequences.
Once they get into the basement with Tim Robbins, Spielberg shifts gears into a different claustrophobic nightmare. Robbins' unhinged character is a good threat in theory, but isn't effective in really upping the stakes for Cruise and co.. In what is amazing choreography of actor blocking, camera moves and CGI integration the sequences where the little green men enter the basement, and when the Tripod probe searches the basement are amazing to begin with, but the probe sequence loses all of it's momentum when the choreography becomes too smart for it's own good. Only with a heavy scent of MacGyver do the measly humans escape the probe.
This is when the film gets messy. Dakota is captured and so Cruise must let himself be taken too. He happens to grab some handy artillery on the way. This is when Bruce Willis takes over the roll for a moment when Cruise sacrifices himself to get blood sucked, and instead manages to blow the Tripod up.
The demise of invaders is a tough sell. It's hard to imagine that they spent thousands, if not millions of years investing in this total annihilation, and forgot this major detail. I think the downfall of the aliens felt like the epilogue rather than the climactic finish, and, indeed, if Cruise's destruction and escape from the blood-drainer was the climax it didn't have the impact it deserved.
The ending left me totally unsatisfied. Not in the least am I saying that I wanted satisfaction from the slaughter of 2 billion people, but for the character's that I'd spent the last two hours enduring a nightmarish hell I wanted some resolution. Sadly, the events are easily foreseeable from the moment the family splits. It feels so cheesy that I walked out of the cinema conflicted as to whether I liked or totally hated the film.
I've come down on the side of liking it. It's an emotional and wild experience that ends in a different place than where it began.