Saturday, July 02, 2005

War of the Worlds

No one would have believed in the first years of the twenty-first century that this world would was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over the matter.

What everyone does know is that if Steven Spielberg directs a summer blockbuster with Tom Cruise and big budget special effects, the world will come out in droves and the studio will make a fortune before anyone stops to wonder if the movie is any good.

Let me save you about $8 and two hours: Do not go to see War of the Worlds. Instead, you might consider reading the book by H.G. Wells. It’s more engaging, more horrifying and more insightful.

Spoilers follow—though the overall plot of the story should be stored in the memory bank of anyone over the age of 13, and everything in the movie was borrowed from existing alien flicks. The style of the tripods and alien technology was very similar to the 1950’s movie, and the aliens were very reminiscent of Independence Day. (This is one of the biggest disappointments to me. You’d think it would be time for a fresh look to aliens. Why not follow the description in the original book?)

The movie opens with Morgan Freeman (I can’t think of his name without hearing Stewie in my head) narrating the adapted opening lines of the book as the camera pans out from chromosomes to amoebas in a drop of water to a wide shot of a city. I thought to myself, “Cool, they’re acknowledging that we already know the ending and are going to bookend it.” Then we meet Tom Cruise. For some reason, during the movie people keep calling him Ray, but it’s clearly Tom Cruise. He’s a longshoreman operating a crane to unload a ship.

Let me step back a moment and discuss my expectations. I read though some reviews and got the impression that War of the Worlds would be relentless, horrific and nightmarish, making “Independence Day look like the Muppet Movie.” One compared it to the intensity of Saving Private Ryan. With that in mind, I was braced for some jolts and a bit of graphic violence; so I fully expected one of the huge shipping containers to crush someone in the first couple minutes of the movie. Didn’t happen. I’ll go ahead and reveal at this point that there are absolutely no graphic injuries sustained by even the extras. If you’re looking for it, you can see where it’s implied that someone was killed, but it’s never on-screen…with the exception of the initial heat-ray attack in which people are instantly vaporized, leaving their clothes to come floating back down to earth after they disappear with what I swear could have been a cartoony POP! Hardly the arresting sight described by Wells:
“It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.
Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run.”

I should point out that I got the distinct impression in several places that Spielberg was intentionally mimicking the style of a 1950’s sci-fi flick, so the implied violence fits. I’m not saying he succeeded in this task, just that he tried it in some scenes (especially near the climax). In fact, I would have liked to see even less of the tripods. Leave them to our imaginations—that’s what makes the book and Orson Wells’ radio drama work!

At times, scenes didn’t flow well into the next. Even cuts within scenes sometimes seemed disjointed. I read somewhere that this movie was rushed in post, so that may explain the choppy/sloppy editing. At least I hope it does. Still, that doesn’t excuse it. The style of the cinematography, the visual storytelling was somehow unique. In the beginning, I actually thought I might want to see this movie again to study Spielberg’s new breakthrough style. But soon CG effects and screaming Dakota Fanning took over… and you couldn’t pay me to watch this movie again any time soon.

The story is broken into three acts. In the first, the “Things” (they’re never referred to as Martians) arrive riding EMP-inducing bolts of lightning into the tripods, which have sat buried under our feet for a million years. They rise and start systematically wiping out the humans with their heat rays. This act is marked by short bursts of frantic pacing and the spectacle of technology from “somewhere else.”

The second act begins after Tom Cruise’s is lost charging over a ridge with the army which is summarily destroyed by the tripods. As Tom runs away, Tim Robbins calls to him from the “safety” of a tornado shelter in the cellar of a farm house. Don’t ask me why Tim Robbins calls to Tom Cruise, or how Tom knows he’s calling to him alone, but he joins Tim in the cellar. Later, Tom will ask why Tim “brought him there”. What the...?! This was actually my favorite act. Tim Robbins’ performance was quite good. The claustrophobia and tension were enough to make you hold your breath for a moment or two as the serpentine “eye” searched for them. Of course, the “eye” was CG and less than convincing.

As we switch over to the third act, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning exit the house to find a spellbinding fairytale landscape covered in red vines flowing with the blood of the humans who’d been sucked dry by the “Things.” Of course there’s the brief imprisonment in the basket (ah, the War of the Worlds I know and love!) and the Luke Skywalker vs. AT-AT like grenade attack on the tripod that came so close to making sense. Before you know it, Tom Cruise has walked to Boston and the “Things” are starting to die. Up to this point, the military couldn’t bring the tripods down because of a force field protecting them. Apparently, when you get the flu, your technology stops working because the remaining tripods were unprotected and easily brought down by an RPG. Oh yeah, and Tom Cruise’s son is still alive. The end.

One more note about parallels between this movie and the real-world events surrounding 9-11: Yes, Speilberg uses our contemporary societal understanding to tell a story that’s relevant to today’s world. That’s what sci-fi does. And no story more so than War of the Worlds. For over one hundred years, the story H.G. Wells originated has been adapted and retold with the technology of the day, making social commentary and playing on the collected fears of its audience. This movie is no different.


Blogger Benoit Lapierre said...

Hi from Canada
Your blog is very interesting!

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1:36 PM  
Blogger Joe Dorn said...

I like you and your blog. I need to update my own soon. Also, my son is alive. The end.

12:25 PM  

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