No one would have believed in the early years of the twenty-first century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own. That as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed - and studied. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of their empire over this world. Yet, across the gulf of space, intellects vast, and cool, and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us . . .
H.G. Wells' classic novel of 1898 has been interpreted by various mediums - firstly by Orson Welles with his masterful radio adaptation, then George Pal's overrated 1953 movie and most recently a rather forgettable television show. Now one of the most important and successful filmmakers of the modern age gets his chance to tell the tale of Martian Tripods wreaking havoc on unsuspecting humanity. Steven Spielberg has already brought alien visitors to earth but the likes of E.T. have been far more benevolent than what is on offer in his latest film. Choosing to set the story in modern times the tone of the piece remains pretty much intact, if not the characters. This switch to a contemporary setting may mean that the chances of a more faithful cinematic version of the novel being made are now about a million to one but for the most part Spielberg has created an exciting and stylistically unique alien invasion movie.
Unfortunately, as with most of Spielberg’s films his obsession with fractured families and their failing fathers is prevalent from the outset. The film opens with divorced dad Ray (Tom Cruise) taking his kids for the weekend from his wife and her new successful husband. This sets up an antagonistic relationship between father and son, which is never really satisfactorily pulled off by either the script or the actors. Justin Chatwin fails to convince as the clichéd tantrum-throwing teenager angry at his father and the world. Dakota Fanning on the other hand is far better as Rachel, Ray's daughter. If at times rather too grown-up, for the most part she really conveys a sense of sheer terror bordering on hysteria. Cruise is fine as Ray, probably enjoying the chance to play a more realistic character as opposed to his action hero roles in such films as Minority Report. The concentration of the plot on this family unit is one of the things that sets this film apart from the usual big summer blockbuster. We only see what the family see with Spielberg portraying an alien invasion from the perspective of the everyday man in the street. There are tantalising snippets of information about how the rest of the world is coping – has Europe survived untouched, did Japan really defeat one of the Tripods – but this is as far as a global perspective goes.
In today’s world no big blockbuster which has mass destruction of people and property as a main theme can escape the shadow of 9/11. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from this, indeed, there are direct references to terrorism in the script – when the attack begins a petrified Rachel asks, “Is it the terrorists”. There is an inevitability in this line, as if the attack from terrorists is expected, or so our governments would have us believe in their fabricated climate of fear. There are also subtler more effective and haunting visual references, when Ray attempts to outrun the initial attack he is covered in white ash (the incinerated remains of those in the path of the heat ray), an image which chillingly echoes the footage of survivors of the twin towers attack. The dormant war machines, hidden underground awaiting the time to strike, could also be seen as a metaphor for the current fear (real or not) of terrorist sleeper cells, secretly biding their time to strike from any location.
This grounding in real events informs the whole film with Spielberg attempting to present the plot as reality rather than spectacle. Every element of this film has been geared towards a single aim, to create as believable as possible a portrayal of alien invasion. The special FX are, in a strange way quite unobtrusive, well, insofar as a giant three-legged war machine from outer space can be unobtrusive! The Tripods themselves have a biomechanical elegance to them but for the most part the FX don’t draw attention to themselves, the camera rarely lingers on the invaders who are, in many scenes, just in the background, placed on the horizon engaged in their relentless destruction of mankind. Alas, when the aliens themselves make an appearance it is a tad underwhelming. It may have been better to keep them unseen. However Spielberg redeems himself with a stunning realisation of The Red Weed, which creates a hell on earth upon which stride the death-dealing Tripods.
Sound is also a vital ingredient in creating an impending sense of dread. The invaders herald their arrival with a deep low bass note that fills the world. A more sinister variation of the musical communication of Spielberg’s earlier alien visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. John Williams is on composing duties and there are a couple of homage’s to his previous work, most notably a cue which harks back to Jaws but apart from a haunting piece that accompanies a doomed military attack on a hilltop his score is surprisingly dissapointing.
The expert cinematography by regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski assists in achieving a palpable sense of realism with the washed out palette and documentary feel to the camerawork giving the impression that we are watching events unfold in real-time. Imagine an alien invasion version of the opening section of Saving Private Ryan and you’ll be someway close to what is on offer here. The use of video news team footage also helps convey the idea that this is a very real world event. But this doesn’t mean that Spielberg forgoes stylish visuals, a dialogue scene with the main players in a car is wonderfully filmed, all in one shot as they make their escape from the devastation.
Throughout the movie Spielberg plays with and to an extent questions the audience’s expectations. There is indeed a dichotomy here in that there is a desire and joy for audiences in seeing destruction on such a grand scale but at the same time an attempt by Spielberg to convey the human cost of such events. As such there are no famous landmarks being destroyed, but the undeniably impressive devastation wrought by the invaders is counter pointed with scenes that depict the consequences of their actions, such as the unforgettable image of a river whose current slowly reveals a mass of corpses.
The breakdown of social order is another key theme and Ray’s fear of the threat from other survivors is portrayed in a barbaric moment in which the remnants of mankind act more like something out of a George A. Romero zombie movie. Characters will do anything they can to survive; there is no room for individual courage here. In keeping with this there is only one concession to action movie star heroics, but it is a suitably crowd-pleasing element that shows humanity fighting back, albeit briefly.
With the film centring on the small family units experiences of the War Of The Worlds there is little time for strong character development from the supporting cast, only Tim Robbins really stands out amongst the other actors. He portrays another survivor who has dealt with things very differently to Ray. Named Ogilvy (after a character from the novel) he has some personality traits that fans of the book will recognise from the character of the artilleryman. On one hand a chance for the characters to rest this extended section of the film also highlights Spielberg’s expert skill at racking up the tension with the survivors holed up in a dank basement attempting to evade the alien threat. A section which echoes the cat and mouse moments from the raptors-in-the-kitchen scene of Jurassic Park, it is not the only time the movies tone borders on that of a horror film; and not all the horrific acts are commited by the aliens.
There are, undeniably, some flaws in this film, but nothing that those familiar with Spielberg’s movies would be surprised by (mawkish sentimentality, a sugar coated ending) although it doesn't make them more palatable. The finale is rather abrupt and is topped off with a scene that leaves a distinct taste of Hollywood cheese in the mouth. But overall War of the Worlds is a surprisingly fresh and different summer blockbuster which shows that Spielberg is still one of the best visual storytellers around. A film that has skilfully reinvented the conventions of the FX driven popcorn movie. One things for certain, you will never be able to listen to Hushabye Mountain in the same way again.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.