Spielberg in the Aughts: War of the Worlds (2005)
In 2005 Steven Spielberg returned to sci-fi with his version of H. G. Wells’ famous story from 1898, War of the Worlds.
Not surprisingly, rather than being a period piece, Mr. Spielberg set his adaptation in the present day. Tom Cruise reunited with Spielberg to star as Ray Ferrier, an affable but cocky guy separated from his wife (played by the beautiful Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings). When she and her new husband go away for the weekend, Ray has to look after their two children: Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Despite his efforts, he finds that he has trouble connecting to either one of his kids. Then aliens attack.
Mr. Spielberg, along with writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, have chosen to take us through the story of an alien apocalypse through the eyes of these three “every-person” characters. We witness the horrific events of the invasion through their eyes, as they struggle to survive. While that’s not exactly a ground-breaking choice, I think it’s an effective way to structure the film. We don’t have a sense, until the very end, of what exactly is happening — who the invaders are, what they want, or what the governments of the world are doing to fight back — and that only adds to the tension and terror of the film. Ray and his kids are swept up in cataclysmic phenomena, and so are we as the audience.
There are some extraordinary visual effects sequences in War of the Worlds. This big-budget sci-fi film was clearly made by a director who is a master of his craft, ably assisted by a huge assortment of talented artists, designers, and visual effects wizards. Ray’s initial encounter with a tripod — and his frantic flight away from it while the monstrosity tears across city blocks and vaporizes other terrified civilians — is a tour de force sequence that make clear that Spielberg & co. meant business with this story. The tripods’ attack on the ferry, the battle on the hilltop towards the end of the film… these are extarordinarily well-realized sequences, dark and violent and intense.
I love that, in many respects, Steven Spielberg chose to make a much grimmer film than is his usual practice. There’s not a lot of fun to be had in War of the Worlds, nor are there many rah-rah crowd-cheering action moments (of the type found in, say, Independence Day).
But somehow, War of the Worlds still leaves me a bit cold. I can’t say it’s a movie that I can get too excited about. Is the problem that the film is TOO grim? Or is perhaps the problem that Mr. Spielberg and his team didn’t go far enough in making a dark sci-fi film? War of the Worlds never quite reaches the level of bleak terror or visceral intensity found in far-lower budgeted sci-fi movies such as Cloverfield (2008) or District 9 (2009).
And, no surprise, Spielberg turns away from real darkness with his ending. Mr. Spielberg’s tendency to include a simple heart-string-pulling happy-ending coda has been mildly annoying in the past (in otherwise great films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), and it really weakened Minority Report (read my review here). I really dislike the ending of War of the Worlds. The first problem, of course, is that Mr. Spielberg & the script-writers did not find a way to make H.G. Welles’ ending any less anti-climactic. It is ludicrous to me that an alien race advanced enough to have mastered space-travel and built mechanical tripods that they buried on our planet MILLIONS of years ago wouldn’t have been aware that exposure to our alien environment, and the microbes it contains, could prove fatal to them. I mean, WE have that knowledge about other planets now, at our current state of technological development! So silly, and such a let-down.
But I also was annoyed by the everyone-lives-happily-ever-after ending in which Ray and Rachel arrive in Boston only to discover that Robbie (who we thought was doomed) had arrived there before them, safe and sound. It just seems too simple, too easy for me. (And it’s also silly that, while it seems that Robbie arrived at his family’s house well before Ray and Rachel is, he’s still in the filthy clothes he wore for the whole film. I know that’s the wardrobe he had for the whole movie, but don’t you think he would’ve grabbed a clean shirt at his first opportunity?) I would have preferred a more ambigious ending. OR, if the screenwriters wanted to give the audience a clear, happy ending, then I would have preferred it if we’d followed Robbie’s adventures after separating from his father and sister. Then his survival would have felt EARNED, to me, rather than just an out-of-left-field bone thrown to keep audiences happy.
There are a number of fine performances in the film. Tom Cruise is dependably solid, able to play a bit of an asshole without veering off the rails into someone the audience can’t root for. Justin Chatwin does a fine job playing Ray’s son, Robbie. I don’t think the script does Mr. Chatwin any favors — he’s called upon to act rebellious in predictably obvious ways early in the film — but he brings a strong life and sense of underlying decency to Robbie. Dakota Fanning is terrific, precocious without being annoying, and able to portray believable terror when needed (such as in an intense sequence trapped in a basement with Tim Robbins’ character). Speaking of Tim Robbins, he’s one of the best supporting actors in the film, playing an unhinged survivor of the aliens’ assault who Ray and Rachel stumble upon late in the story. It’s a great sequence.
War of the Worlds is a strong, competently-made film. It features some great actors and some amazing special effects sequences. But overall, somehow, the film is weaker than the sum of its parts. There’s little here that feels particularly new or original. Despite being an adaptation of a book from 1898, I’d nonetheless expected something a little more alive from filmmakers of this caliber.
I’m nearing the end of my review of the last decade-and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg! I’ll be back soon with the final installment of my Spielberg in the Aughts series: my review of Munich.
Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: The Terminal (2004), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad (1997), The Lost World (1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985).