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War Of The Worlds (2005)
Director: Steven Spielberg

review by Jonathan McCalmont

When I first drafted this review I had this huge introductory paragraph giving you all of this analysis of H.G. Wells as a futurist, and how people like Orson Welles and Byron Haskins had adapted the theme of the novel to their era and the warfare of their day, and how this had ensured that this novel lasted better than other pieces of Wells' futurology.

But you know what? Not relevant.

None of it is relevant because film this isn't a trenchant piece of sociopolitical commentary or a piece of futurology or even science fiction. This is a blockbuster summer disaster movie in the tradition of The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon and Independence Day but made by the man who helped create the 'genre' when he made Jaws.

War Of The Worlds looks like a science fiction film and Spielberg has claimed that it is social commentary on 9/11 but it really isn't. For starters the much vaunted 9/11 content is entirely composed of a load of American flags and people screaming "Is it terrorists? Is it Europeans?" when death-rays start turning people to dust and piles of clothes. The closest Spielberg comes to a metaphor is the fact that the tripods do not travel to Earth but are here on Earth already. So Spielberg's social commentary is essentially a parroting of the Neo-Conservative idea of the US being infested with Al Qaeda cells waiting to come to life and murder people but then he gets bored and goes back to blowing stuff up. The science fiction ideas are at best imported wholesale from H.G. Wells with neither modernisation nor development and at worst are thoughtless plot hole magnets. If you're looking to see a grown up science fiction film don't go and see this film, and if you like low-brow skiffy with spaceships and explosions you'll be disappointed because the designs are unoriginal and ugly and the ideas behind them are non-existent. Spielberg has nothing to say about alien invasions or 9/11. However, like a suicide-bombing Mr Kipling, he makes exceedingly good explosions.

War Of The Worlds is full of Spielberg's trademarked wilfully iconic visuals to the extent that this film has more memorable visuals than any of his other recent films. We get hordes of refugees politely waiting at a railroad crossing for a train to pass only for the train to rocket past completely engulfed in flames, we have aliens vaporising so many people that the sky rains down empty clothes and we have Dakota Fanning staring at a body floating down the river only to see a second one and then another and another until the river is choked with them. In addition to these there are capsizing ferries, riots, explosions and all sorts of summer blockbuster fun. However, there are also a worrying number of bad judgement calls for a Spielberg film. For example, Spielberg chooses to chicken out of showing us the modern equivalent of the Thunderchild scene where humanity mounts a last military stand, instead everything happens over the crest of a hill with only the odd burning Hummer or soldier shouting into a radio to indicate what's going on. He also chooses to pay homage to the 1953 version of the film by using an identical set rather than show us the desolation wreaked by the tripods in glorious CGI 'Technicolor'. While the film obviously has its moments it misfires frequently enough to make you lament how much better this film could have been if made by a filmmaker with the same ambition and fearlessness as Spielberg had when he directed Jaws. In fact, Jaws is an interesting counterpoint because it had a solid plot and incredibly memorable dialogue whereas plot and dialogue are two of this film's major problems.

Like all Spielberg films, this is essentially a story about a dysfunctional family. Cruise plays Ferrier, a deadbeat dad alienated from his family after a divorce that saw his kids living with their mother and brought up by another man. He doesn't know his daughter and he doesn't get on with his son. As you'd expect there's a saccharine subplot about the family coming together through adversity but the problem is that this plot simply doesn't work. Ferrier is called upon twice to make tough decisions about his family and in both cases they are completely undermined minutes later. Late in the film Ferrier is forced to murder another human who has visibly lost his mind in order to protect his daughter and prevent her from being captured. However, minutes later they're captured anyway. Earlier in the film Ferrier has to choose between preventing his daughter from being carried off by strangers and preventing his son from running off to fight the aliens and he chooses his daughter. However, at the end of the film when Ferrier deposits his daughter in Boston with his ex-wife the son appears completely unharmed, thereby undermining the character building scene where Ferrier has to choose. By the end of the film Ferrier is still alone, he's still estranged from his kids and ex-wife and doesn't have much to show for his actions. So Ferrier begins estranged and ends estranged, rendering the entire subplot null and void because the characters literally go nowhere.

The acting is also disappointing given the talent on screen. Dakota Fanning, a revelation of cuteness and emotion in Man On Fire is reduced to screaming and moaning while Tom Cruise foregoes his usual big character defining scene (there's no "I'm quietly judging you" or "show me the money" here) and Justin Chatwin is utterly anonymous as Cruise's teenaged son. The dialogue is also far from sparkling with no standout lines or exchanges. This film is just an endless desert of running and screaming and explosions with nothing to say and no redeeming subplots.

However, it is a pretty solid summer movie. There are loads of memorable scenes, the pacing is superb, you get to see Spielberg use all of his tricks and you even get to see one of the classics of science fiction brought to the screen even if it is as a thin pretext for blowing things up. I don't hate this film but it's not the film it could have been and that makes my heart ache. With Minority Report Spielberg reminded us that he could handle big ideas without them collapsing into a puddle of diabetes-inducing sludge like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and his back catalogue speaks for itself. If anyone could have updated H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds for these troubled times it was Spielberg, who had the vision, the clout and according to interviews the desire, but sadly - despite some memorable Spielbergian moments - this film simply serves as a testament to a great film that never got made. It's solid summer fare but nothing more.
War of the Worlds

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