War of the Worlds


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
War of the Worlds
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a working class slob, estranged from his family and too wrapped up in himself. His self-involvement will soon take a back seat when alien beings invade the Earth and threaten to annihilate mankind in Steven Spielberg’s making of the H.G. Wells classic tale, “War of the Worlds.”

Robin:
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a working class slob, estranged from his family and too wrapped up in himself to have little more than a passing interest in son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning). But, his self-involvement will soon take a back seat when alien beings invade the Earth and threaten to annihilate mankind in Steven Spielberg’s making of the H.G. Wells classic tale, War of the Worlds.”

Spielberg is a master craftsman in the art of film spectacle making and his vision of the H.G. Wells story has all the visual elements one expects in a big-budget sci-fi actioner. Unfortunately, the decision was made, somewhere along the line, to draft sophomore scripter Josh Friedman (“Chain Reaction”) to adapt the terrific Wells story. The new telling starts off well enough to spark the viewer’s interest with the mysterious, violent storms and meteors crashing into the earth as everyman Ray tries to save his kids. But, mediocre writing, especially the finale, and shallow characters puts the “WotW” into the category of routine.

As Ray frantically tries to save his kids, the story meanders from one terrific action sequence to the next but the characters are not fully drawn. Cruise tries to delve into the anger, fear and frustration of a man helpless to stop the relentless monsters out to kill him and his kids. What we get is a man who seems to be more ticked off that his bowling night was cancelled than a man trying to survive.

There is little to laud about with the supporting cast of mostly unknowns. Besides Cruise, only Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins have noticeable star power but neither gives (or is allowed to give) fully developed performances. Fanning, a favorite of mine, is left to look scared and scream at the appropriate moments, but the director handles even this unevenly. Things, story-wise, start to peter out at about the two-thirds mark, just in time to introduce Ogilvy (Robbins), a survivalist with a hankering to bring the war, guerrilla-style, to the aliens. This extended scene takes elements from the 1953 version (a first-rate Cold War allegory) starring Gene Barry and duplicates them almost exactly – with the benefit of over 50 years of F/X development – but it bogs the whole movie down until the insipid, happily ever after ending.

The special F/X extravaganza is worth the price of admission from start to finish as the space invaders rear their armored heads and begin blasting mankind into oblivion. There are a number of visual set pieces – the overhead highway being methodically blown to bits next to Ray’s working class neighborhood; an auto ferry that is too close when an alien death machine rises out of the Hudson River; the hopeless battle between the brave US Army and the undefeatable robot monsters – that are eye candy of the finest kind.

One thing that real bothers me, though, with the new War of the Worlds” is the need to play foot loose and fancy free with science. Much is done to establish the power of the aliens when they unleash the cataclysmic electro-magnetic pulse blasts that render everything electrical into uselessness. Then, with thousands, even millions, of vehicles disabled by the EMP, Ray steals a car that just so happens to have a new starter solenoid. It doesn’t seem to matter that any of the electrics in the car would be fried. Then, later on, the little family comes upon a town with fully functioning electricity but not one of the vehicles works. This kind of cavalier treatment is unnecessary at this level of entertainment and impacted my suspension of disbelief.

I’m wondering if all the hype that has followed this film (and Mr. Cruise’s much publicized romance with half-his-age Katie Holme) set expectations higher than they should have been. Having read the original H.G. Wells story, which has been a favorite of mine for many years may, also raised my hopes higher than they probably should have been.” WotW” is a beautifully crafted film with the F/X money up there on the screen but suffers from a story that spirals down to its weak finale. The sappy and silly happily-ever-after ending deserves a big “BOO!” I give it a B-.

Laura:
'She's my little deuce coupe, You don't know what I got'        'Little Deuce Coupe,' The Beach Boys

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is taking care of his wary kids Robbie (Justin Chatwin, "Taking Lives") and Rachel (Dakota Fanning, "Hide & Seek") in his home beneath Newark's Casciano Bridge while his ex-wife (Miranda Otto, "The Lord of the Rings") and her new husband visit her parents in Boston.  Rachel becomes increasingly terrified of what at first appears to be a particularly violent electrical storm, but when Ray sets out to investigate, he is shocked to find himself in the midst of a "War of the Worlds."

Switching the focus from Gene Barry's scientist of the 1953 edition to a single guy taking a crash course in familial love and responsibility, Steven Spielberg creates a visceral thrill ride for the first two-thirds of his film before losing steam and wrapping with an ending as ludicrously implausible as last year's airheaded "The Day After Tomorrow."  Spielberg fans will recognize recycling from several of his earlier movies, but they all serve their purpose in this loving amalgamation of today's technology with retro images from the director's childhood.

Ray's a cocky blue collar guy who works on the docks and stocks his kitchen with car parts.  His rocky role as a dad is underscored immediately and often when he shows up a half hour late to meet his ex at his house.  His teenaged son can barely be bothered to greet him and Ray's attempt to toss the ball around out back turns into a hostile contest.  After sleeping off his third shift, Ray awakens to discover that Robbie, who does not yet have his license, has taken off in Ray's car.  Meanwhile ignored television news reports of strange blackouts and earthquakes in other parts of the world play out in the background (shades of Shyamalan's "Signs").

After that horrific lightning display (mostly suggested via a terrific use of sound) Robbie returns to tell dad he watched the same spot get hit countless times.  Ray proceeds to the intersection of Van Buren where he witnesses the first 'tripod,' an unearthly machine a hundred feet tall, rise up beneath the street to begin moving on three spindly legs, vaporizing everything in its path.  Ray returns home like a 9/11 witness covered in ashes and hijacks the only vehicle not disabled by EMP to get his kids back to their mom.

Screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp ("Secret Window") keep the basics from the H.G. Wells novel (narrator Morgan Freeman opens and closes with passages from the book), but their introduction of the aliens is a major hiccup, the implication being that aliens planted thousands of tripods a million years earlier.  Why the wait many are sure to ask - one can deduce that a buildup in the human population was necessary, but it is difficult to imagine that none of these underground machines would have been discovered in the interim.  They smartly twist a second onslaught, heard but not seen in a home's basement, into a human disaster, yet Spielberg presents the aftermath too pristinely, with no sign of bodies where there should be (he later has no such qualms when Rachel witnesses the Hudson River chockablock with the dead, a very grim and effective loss of innocence).

The invasion, though, is really a backdrop to the Ferrier story.  Forced by extreme circumstances, Ray finds himself making most of the right choices and, over the course of the film, earns his kids' trust after being clearly dismissed at the onset.  In one of the numerous references to 9/11, Robbie is jazzed by the sight of the military, wanting to 'fight back,' but Rachel demands to know who will take care of her if he should leave.  Ray is amazed by his eldest's instincts when Robbie assists strangers during a disastrous ferry crossing, then faces his own kind of "Sophie's Choice" moment when Robbie begs to leave while Rachel is being pulled away by misguided strangers. After letting one child go, Ray goes to lengths he probably never dreamed of to protect his daughter and finds a fierce source of love in the bargain.

Cruise takes his signature cockiness and, this time around, makes it a false front for a not-so-likable-guy (he watches his very pregnant wife haul suitcases up his stairs) who still exhibits shreds of decency ('That look suits you,' is the last thing he says to his obviously delighted ex).  He projects fear-based adrenaline to accomplish what he must, and a softening sensitivity towards Rachel ('Little Deuce Coupe' is sung in lieu of the lullabies he neglected to learn).  Dakota Fanning is mostly required to register either shock or fear and she accomplishes both believably just as Chatwin is a credibly distant teen.  In the only other role of real significance, Tim Robbins ("Mystic River") is saddled with the ill-defined Ogilvy, who exists only as a test of Ray's character.

The aliens and their tripods have a look reminiscent of old cover illustrations of Well's novel (production design by Rick Carter ("Jurassic Park," "Artificial Intelligence: AI") combined with ferocious sound effects (sound design and effects editing by Michael Babcock "Starsky & Hutch") that render them forbiddingly modern.  Country encounters with the tripods have a retro 'set' feel where hills lead up to a skyline hiding the monsters beyond (think "Invaders from Mars").

Spielberg stages a terrific water tank sequence, where a tripod rises to upset a crowded ferry.  The Ferriers watch from the water as a car slides off the deck right at them, plunging them underwater (cinematography by Janusz Kaminski "The Terminal"), but many other sequences are redressed from earlier films, most prominently "Jurassic Park's" raptor kitchen scene, which is now an evasion of a tripod's 'eye.'  The eyes which haunted Cruise in "Minority Report" return here, not only on the tripods but in a duplicated shot through the hole of a broken windshield and Ray's constant 'blinding' of Rachel.  That vibrating RR sign from "Close Encounters" is an earlier, simpler manifestation of electromagnetic pulse and "AI's" Flesh Fair is echoed in the human cages of the tripods' undercarriage.  The director goes too far pushing 9/11 images, though. We get the point early on as debris floats through the sky, but a wall of the missings' photos at a ferry landing makes little sense given the continuing chaos.

"War of the Worlds" is a near perfect thrill ride, but its creator throttles any suspension of disbelief right out of us with an all too perfect, utterly nonsensical happy ending.  Yet while his "War's" waging, Spielberg will have you by the throat.

B+
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