Folks, if you can't tell the above paragraph is bullshit, then I have some beach front property in El Paso to sell ya. Look, I got giddy too when I was engaged, and I probably jumped up and down on a couch or two to celebrate, too. What's the difference? There wasn't a camera on me at the time. Public love or not, it's probably all in vain now, as H.G. Wells' dynamic vision of alien invasion has just hit (and splattered on to) the screen (in one of three June 2005 adaptations), and We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect Martian Union are now Fertilizer... quite literally!
Enter Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), the deadbeat dad everyman through whose eyes we see all this tragedy. He's an ordinary dock crane operator from New Jersey, who somehow manages to have the luck of every Leprechaun rolled into one, more military knowledge than the entire United States Army, and quicker thinking than Einstein on Ritalin. If this is Cruise's version of an Everyman, dude, I'm looking into Scientology today (sorry for the Ritalin line, there, Tommy). For all the terrible terror and horrible horror that director Steven Spielberg so deftly brings to the screen Ray always seems to be one hop, skip or jump in front of it all, proving himself to be neigh invincible as an Earth X Superhero!
But for all his power, he can't keep a family together, and his daughter Rachel (the ever-excellent Dakota Fanning) and son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) regard him with varying degrees of apathy and dislike. So do I, actually. But no matter what, they all seem to narrowly escape tragedy every time it rears its ugly mechanical head, to the point that it's almost impossible to identify with these superhumans.
Perhaps Spielberg, or the screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp, felt the audiences needed this consistent relief because there are some truly scary and disturbing scenes in this film, and at times they seem unrelenting. Unlike a lot of alien invasion flicks (adaptations of this same source material included) War of the Worlds does not portray Martian Domination as a mild annoyance that serves only to rally the troops in all of us! No, there are some genuine horrors herein that can make one jump or cower.
When it comes to special effects, and to setting mood with the best tricks in the business, Steven Spielberg (along with a boat load of SFX houses like Stan Winston's) has most certainly still got it! At its scariest War of the Worlds reminds one that Spielberg is the guy who directed Jaws and wrote Poltergeist! However, at its most sensational and gratuitous, War of the Worlds reminds one that he also brought us The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Hook!
The real feel of Wells' original (and Orson (no relation) Welles' radio drama) The War of the Worlds begins to lose focus just a bit as some true Hollywood heroics disturb the "desperation-before-ironic-victory" of the source material. This shows especially when SuperEveryMan Cruise dispatches a few Alien scums and instructs a National Guard division (who clearly recognize Tom's Sovereignty) to do the same. All this in spite of the fact that none of the aliens appear to be named "Xenu" or even "Psychlo", go figure! Of course, this is the Summer Movie season, so a little Whoreywood in your Blockbuster is needed, even when it comes to a relatively pat ending in which virtually every loose end is tied up tighter than Venus Williams' thigh muscles.
But Spielberg still does manage to deliver a few "how'd they do that" moments, even if, like me, you've visited parts of the set. From the seamless, yet impossible, tracking shot of Ray's escaping van to the hyperrealism of the unreal tripods, it's a treat for the eyes, even when you have to put the old brain on autopilot. The desperate tone, when not interrupted by glitzy action, is well served by Spielberg and his focus on the characters, bitingly unaware of the "whole story", like a more expansive version of Shyamalan's Signs. Where War of the Worlds makes the grade is in its examination of tragedy and its effects on humanity. From Tim Robbins' insane Ogilvy to Miranda Otto's distraught Mary Ann, we get a full range of characterizations facing the end of the world with degrees of rage, greed and absolute despair. But, then, each time things get just a bit too heady, we get another explosion or six.
It's good fun, though and, while it can get terribly stupid from moment to moment, other times shine with surprising intelligence... and even acting. So, as much as I hate to give another Summer Flick Four Stars out of Five, I'm doing so for War of the Worlds. Okay, it leans down into Three and a Half territory sometimes, and this is much, much more Dreamworks than Wells at other times, but taken for all, with all, it's not that bad, man! And to think up until now we were more concerned with Tom and Katie than the possibilities of Aliens exterminating us like Viruses. To be safe, I think I'm going to try and unload that El Paso Beach Front Property right now, kiddos! Sigh! So much for the friendly Alien visitors of Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind! So until we all decide to Phone Home to Devil's Tower, only to find that the nasties of the universe are plotting to use us as potting soil, I'll see you in the next reel!
Hey, look, A Tripod!
Oh, no, wait, that's just Peter North!
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