War of the Worlds (2005)

A film review by Jeffrey Graebner

Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel War of the Worlds contains many of the conventional elements of the mainstream disaster movie and adds an unusual layer of realism, both in style and characterizations. The result is a genuinely scary film that maintains a very high level of tension and excitement.

The film, which was adapted by screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp (the latter also adapted Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World for Spielberg) pretty closely follows the structure of Wells’ novel, but transports the setting from 19th century London to present day New York. The central character of an absentee father (Tom Cruise) trying to escort his children to safety is created for the film, a smart decision as Wells novel was told through the eyes of an undeveloped first-person observer, an approach that wouldn’t likely work as well on film.

Cruise gives a good performance as Ray, a man who initially is not very sympathetic or heroic, but is ultimately forced to find some maturity and parental instincts by the extreme circumstances of the alien invasion. The character is a variation of the charming, cocky, but irresponsible persona that Cruise has frequently portrayed in past films and it is interesting seeing those traits treated more as negatives that need to be overcome instead of strengths, a somewhat natural progression as Cruise has become older and is naturally going to be playing characters with greater responsibilities. Ray is likable, but clearly a lousy parent who has to struggle to gain enough trust from his children to provide any chance that he can keep them safe.

Dakota Fanning gives a very convincing performance as Rachel, Ray’s 10-year-old daughter, continuing the tradition of very strong child performances in Spielberg’s films. I was particularly impressed by the realism of the character. Rachel does not act like a typically precocious movie child, but instead her reactions seem very realistic for a 10-year-old placed into horrifying circumstances. Instead of being a pillar of strength, as movie kids sometimes are, she truly seems like a frightened child. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of several scenes where Ray and the older son put a great deal of effort into trying to shield her from some of the horrors going on all around.

The teenage son, Robbie, played by Justin Chatwin, is also more realistically portrayed than I initially expected. At first, it seems like the character is going to be the typically morose and disinterested movie teen, but there is more complexity there as the character reveals some unexpected heroism and strength. Some of the film’s most effective character moments come from the conflicts between Robbie’s youthful impulse to get involved and fight back and Ray’s parental instinct to keep his child safe.

Of course, this film isn’t primarily a character-oriented film and the main attraction is going to be the special effects and action. Spielberg wastes no time getting into the core of the alien invasion story and the tension rarely lets up throughout the nearly 2-hour running time. It very effectively builds up a powerful overriding sense of dread and hopelessness that is very unusual for this type of mainstream disaster movie. Unlike the more traditional recent genre efforts (such as Independence Day or Armageddon), there is an unexpected sense of authenticity to the emotions prompted by the unfolding events. I suspect this more authentic portrayal of events in a disaster movie was part of Spielberg’s motivation for making this film, particularly in an era in which recent real world events make it a bit harder to accept this kind of destruction being taken lightly. While the film is overall probably the most downbeat of Spielberg’s mainstream blockbusters, he still is able to recognize the points where a little bit of humor is needed. Generally, these bits of humor come from the character dialog and never seem out-of-place or out-of-character.

Stylistically, this film does not have the slickness that you might expect from a big-budget blockbuster in this genre. Visually, the previous Spielberg film that this most resembles is Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg and his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski forgo the use of a widescreen format and use handheld photography and muted colors and lighting to generate a gritty, somewhat dirty, often first-person look to the proceedings. The grainy, 35mm photography makes for an interesting contrast to the slick, widescreen digital approach that Spielberg’s friend and sometimes collaborator George Lucas used on his recently-released final Star Wars film.

There are some very spectacular set pieces showing death and destruction, but they aren’t gleeful or exploitative and instead inspire a realistic sense of horror in the viewer. Spielberg also shows his skill for building a great deal of tension with some smaller sequences, including an intensely frightening sequence involving a panicked crowd and a very tense, extended sequence featuring Tim Robbins in a strong supporting performance as a man whom the circumstances have pushed over the edge of sanity. This sequence concludes with a final confrontation that is made exceptionally powerful by Spielberg’s decision to keep it off-screen.

If you are looking for a movie that revels in the destruction, this probably isn’t the right movie to see. A number of sequences and images in this film leave a lingering impression that may be a bit hard to shake. While the film is sufficiently restrained to have achieved a PG-13 rating, the overall intensity of this film is such that parents should give careful consideration (and possibly pre-screen the film) before taking their kids.

The visual design of the alien tri-pods very convincingly realizes the descriptions that are included in Wells’ novel. The film also includes a few visual nods to George Pal’s previous film version as well. Spielberg shows great restraint by holding of on showing the aliens themselves until very late in the film and even then the sequence is fairly short. Again the visual design is faithful to Wells’ descriptions.

With his 21st score for a Spielberg directed feature film, composer John Williams once again adds a very important element to the film’s success. The music is among William’s darkest and most intense compositions, often adding immeasurably to the sense of dread. This score does not have the distinctive melodic themes common to most of Williams’ other scores, instead having a more abstract, even atonal, quality. It probably isn’t a soundtrack album that I will listen to very often, but the score is absolutely right for the film.

The sound design on the film is also very good, with some extremely skillful use of surround sound. Very distinctive sounds are used to signal the arrival of the alien tri-pods (much the same way that the booming footsteps were used to signal the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park) and sound is also often used to convey off-screen events, basically allowing your hearing and your imagination to generate the images. There is even one very effective scene in which the screen is completely black while a key event is conveyed entirely through sound.

Of course, this is the third theatrical film that Spielberg has directed about aliens visiting the Earth. While this film really has little in common with E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (although there is one short bit that I think was an intentional, but subtle reference), there actually are some stylistic similarities to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, despite the obvious difference in the intent and nature of the aliens. The earlier film had some rather tense sequences prior to the point where we learned the aliens intentions and some of that is echoed in this film. The previously-mentioned panicked crowd sequence, in particular, has some echoes of a similar sequence in the earlier film.

The one small complaint that I had about the film is that the ending, while appropriate and generally faithful to Wells’ novel, seems to come a bit abruptly. It is generally the right ending for this movie (although there is one character-oriented decision that I found a bit questionable), but it felt like it could have used a bit more build-up than it received. There seems to be a bit of a leap in time and place that could have used a bit more connecting material. It isn’t a fatal flaw, by any means, but it does cause the film to ultimately fall a bit short of the potential suggested during the first 3/4 of its running time.

Despite this slight flaw, this is still a fine addition to Spielberg’s impressive body of work and an overall very satisfying adaptation of one of the true classic works of science fiction.

Copyright 2005, Jeffrey Graebner

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