War of the Worlds (2005) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman (voice), Ann Robinson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Josh Friedman, David Koepp (based on the novel by H.G. Wells)
Yet another adaptation of the oft-visited alien invasion classic by H.G. Wells, Steven Spielberg (The Terminal, Catch Me if You Can) takes his turn for a credible, but a touch underdeveloped, update of War of the Worlds. Produced at breakneck speed for a major summer blockbuster, shot in about 2 1/2 months, and released in theaters worldwide only about seven months after starting to film, one wonders whether or not to credit Spielberg for managing to deliver all of the special effects and massive scenes of destruction you could want in a movie in such short order, or to criticize him for not spending nearly enough time in making this truly the most spellbinding telling of Wells' novel.
Tom Cruise (Collateral, The Last Samurai) stars as Ray Ferrier, a divorced working class New Jersey man that has been entrusted temporary care of his two children, teenage Robbie (Chatwin, Taking Lives) and his younger sister Rachel (Fanning, Hide and Seek), while their mother (Otto, Flight of the Phoenix) goes away on a trip. The relationship between himself and his children in tenuous at best, but soon they find their bonds tested when strange events start happening throughout the world in the form of peculiar lightning storms. Soon, the phenomenon hits their town, and from below the Earth, strange robotic three-legged creatures emerge, destroying buildings, cars, and any people that dare cross their path. Ray decides their best option is to run, and with the kids in tow, they break like mad for a place to survive, only to find that no such place seems to exist.
If there's one thing that Spielberg does excel at with War of the Worlds, it's the build-up of tension. He starts off quiet, introducing us to the main characters, letting us get to know them and care about their plight. You might wonder why there would be such a need for bothering with the plights of three people in a world of billions, especially since they are about as insignificant as the rest. The answer really is to put a human face to the proceedings, following how the terror of the situation can drive people mad, letting us see the potential tragedies this results in, and how this affects the entire world in just the same way.
The only real missteps in the "humans are insignificant" premise comes from occasional bouts where Tom Cruise must be hero and protector. Soon, the momentum of the film shifts from world events to whether or not Ray can reconcile with the children that have little respect for him. Clearly, Spielberg has made a career reaffirming family values in his films, putting parents in situations where they must protect their loved ones, but in the grand scope of Wells' vision, such a personal story tends to weaken the impact in what should have been a film that humbles us, putting all of our petty squabbles aside when it comes to virtual extinction at the hands of a mighty and awe-inspiring power we cannot even begin to fathom.
As you'd expect from a Spielberg blockbuster, all of the technical elements are top-notch, with theater-shaking sound, eye-candy special effects, a rousing score by John Williams (Revenge of the Sith, Prisoner of Azkaban), and every other bell and whistle you can imagine. it is a treat for the eyes and ears, even if the heart and brain are left wanting just a little more. That's not to say that this isn't an intelligent or passionate film, as it does have a core of intelligence and humanity. However, given the fact that we've tread this same ground innumerable times in science fiction films over the last half century, we should expect a little more from the man many feel is the greatest filmmaker of all time.
War of the Worlds may have its flaws, but it is still recommended for the experience, as it does deliver a good amount of mystery, suspense, terror, and intrigue. Unfortunately, the tension plateaus at around the halfway point, only to peter out as the film starts to head toward an ending that many people will feel is anti-climactic. While Spielberg clearly has the vision to pull off great things, there is still much about War of the Worlds to suggest he spent much of his time on "auto pilot", relying on old tricks and clichés of his own creation to get him out of the tough spots. it starts with a bang and ends with a shrug, and how you ultimately feel about the film as a whole will primarily be determined by how much that initial bang is still resounding in your ears at the time it is all over.
-- Also made in 1953 as The War of the Worlds.
©2005 Vince Leo