War of the Worlds (2005)

The more literate among you may have been concerned that Steven Spielberg's update of the classic H.G. Wells novel doesn't pay proper fealty to its roots. Fear not, the film opens with a brilliant Morgan Freeman narration consisting of a literal and tonally ominous reading of the first few sentences from the book. War of the Worlds is filled with great surface tribute not only to Wells groundbreaking tale but to the previous and underrated 1953 Byron Haskin adaptation of it as well. Those of you not concerned with musty things like old books or ancient reels of vaulted Paramount films should be satisfied too, Steven blows plenty of things up.

War of the Worlds tells pretty much the same invasion story we've all seen on screen dozens of times since the advent of movies. This makes sense, since Wells original novel is the story that started it all. Still, it's a little hard now to watch Spielberg's adaptation without being influenced by other movies we've all seen, some of them made pretty recently. It doesn't help either that Spielberg has updated the time period in Wells' book (originally published and set in 1898) to modern day. In doing so I'm sure he was hoping to make his story something modern audiences could identify with, but he also ends up with a movie that feels, fair or not, like an amalgam of a lot of other alien attack films.

That doesn't mean it isn't good, it means only that there's no way for it to feel completely fresh. Aside from setting it in 1898, I'm not sure what Spielberg could have done to accomplish that. I think I'd have started by avoiding the casting of Tom Cruise. Cruise stars as Ray, a humble dock worker and divorced father stuck with his two kids for the weekend. He looks nothing like a dock worker, and even less like a put upon single dad. In a plot already so familiar, the presence of Hollywood's biggest star only compounds the already existing familiarity problem. One of Ray's kids is played by Dakota Fanning, who of course cannot resist occasionally behaving as if she's a grown-up. It's ironic, the child actors we consider good are often the ones who are least capable of playing children since they've had no real childhood of their own. Goonies had a terrible group of child actors, but at least somewhere in the midst of all that wild screaming they behaved as kids. Dakota manages that when she's crying or screaming, but the rest of the time she seems too fully formed to be convincing as a kid.

It's alright, she's got plenty of reason to scream. As you'd expect in a movie with angry aliens, eventually the tentacled menace attacks in wonderfully realized machines riding on three massive legs. Because this is an American film, and L.A. wasn't available, the first place they attack is of course New York. "Is it the terrorists?" asks frightened little Dakota, but by then we all know it most certainly isn't. The tripods are coming and so Ray wastes no time in escaping. He grabs his little family and flees, as any sensible person should. Generally there are no sensible people in movies, it is only in the hands of a certifiably genius filmmaker like Spielberg that practicality ever wins out over the book of movie logic. Practicality prevails here and Ray runs like hell.

The production design in War of the Worlds is nothing short of brilliant. The era may have been updated, but the aliens haven't. Both aliens and their tools have a ridiculously cool retro feel to them as they stomp across the landscape. You can't help but feel they'd be perfectly comfortable having an all out brawl with Godzilla, or showing up in a really weird episode of "Flash Gordon". That's not to say they aren't believable, somehow Spielberg's team has managed to pay homage to that old style of science fiction filmmaking while at the same time creating something utterly present. The alien heat rays (which are never referred to as such) zap (there is no other word for what they do) across the screen like the laser beams from Tim Burton's camp film Mars Attacks. Alien probes bear a striking resemblance to the ships used in Haskin's old War of the Worlds adaptation attempt. The tripods themselves are covered with tentacles and legs and saucer-ish discs for heads. Like the kitsch robots from Sky Captain watching these machines stomp through fleeing crowds zapping everything in sight is worth just about any ticket price.

War of the Worlds is a good summer movie, filled with great effects, solid performances, and of course the world's most over-exposed movie star. It's a Hollywood film in every sense of the word, and one that people will no doubt enjoy despite the temptation to compare it to ID4. But, it misses being any more than good because it refuses to take risks or try anything new (beyond breathing life into giant freakin tripods that is). Maybe Spielberg has finally aged or maybe he has simply become too comfortable. Whatever the reason his recent movies lack the sort of power we once expected from the man. He's still a genius however, and in my opinion patently incapable of making a bad film. He nails the basics in War of the Worlds, you'll never see Spielberg resort to the shaky cam. His movie simply lacks umpf. Wells novel is so gripping because more than anything, it's a tale of horror with a pretty important lesson buried within. In Spielberg's movie, a narrator recites Wells' ominous words about the pride of man, but they lack any real meaning or significance in the context of this film. There's nothing scary or disturbing about it, it's simply another fun alien invasion flick. Easily enjoyed and equally easily forgotten.

Late in the movie there's one of those signature Tom Cruise moments that seems to crop up in most of his films. You know the one where no matter how bad things are going Cruise plays the hero and jumps up to save the day and defeat the bad guys. It's really symptomatic of what's missing in War of the Worlds: Guts. The movie doesn't have any. It's afraid to go for anything less than a happy ending, it's afraid to make a real adaptation of Wells' book, which in its purest form is the story of man lost, alone, and completely without hope. Well's unnamed hero scrabbles and claws his way across the landscape, a helpless rodent in the clutches of a superior enemy. In there is a lesson about mankind and humility lost in a movie where the protagonist kicks some alien ass. That Cruise moment smacks of agent-driven script doctoring, something that a younger, more passionate Steven would probably never have let happen.

Yet I hate to sound like I'm trashing a movie I'm quite happy to give a positive review. It's just hard not to point out the obviously failed subtext floating around in this thing, no matter how blithely fun and well constructed it may be on the surface. War of the Worlds is a piece of perfectly realized, pure entertainment. If Spielberg is through making instantly classic films like E.T. or Saving Private Ryan, we'd be plenty lucky to have him finish out his career churning out a yearly dose of glossy, empty, blockbuster entertainment like this. I can live with that. Look, I've made it all the way through this review without mentioning Tom Cruise's recent publicity antics. Do I get a phone call from Oprah?