War of the Worlds
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Fifties sci-fi fed off of cold-war fears. Movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them! revealed the paranoia that underpinned fifties complacency. But few people saw this connection at the time. Rather with the distance of several elapsed decades, the connection became increasingly clear.

With cold-war dangers now reduced, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds looks to terrorism to feed its brand of sci-fi paranoia. Here, the invaders are out to destroy our way of life. They're merciless. There is no middle ground. There is no room for compromise. It's us or them. Spielberg has even gone on record talking about how he drew on terrorism when crafting his revision of H.G. Wells' classic tale; however, by bringing the underpinning paranoia so close to the surface, the movie takes on a pre-fabricated aura, which makes the movie's drama artificial and contrived. Nonetheless, the movie still has much in its favor--such as the horrifying scenes of destruction wreaked by the aliens, the dumbstruck expressions on the actors' faces as they stare up at the alien invaders, and the overriding feeling of hopelessness created whenever the towering alien tripods appear on screen.

Spielberg's updating of War of the Worlds discards the idea of cylinders falling from the sky like meteors, as conveyed in Wells' story, as well as Orson Welles' 1938 radio version. Spielberg forgoes the mystery of the falling cylinders in favor of ominous, swirling clouds and spastic, intense bursts of lightning. However, Spielberg provides the same devastating results as Wells once the aliens do in fact arrive. Spielberg's aliens arrive in a different manner altogether that brings their status as outsiders into question: they've been here before, and their invasion infrastructure may already he here, waiting to be activated.

It's no coincidence that Spielberg starts the movie on a loading dock, where shipping containers the size of railroad cars are stacked. These are the same shipping containers that news reports have warned us may pose a grave danger to national security because so few of them are inspected. Spielberg immediately draws parallels with terrorism as he places his story in a context that invites his audience to begin thinking about the inherent dangers that surround us.

Spielberg knows that for the horrific implications of the story to have the greatest effect the movie's horror must be drawn upon the real fears of his audience. So he hones in upon the danger to our way of life. Once the aliens arrive and they turn their death ray on the populace, everyone is on the run, fleeing from the alien tripods. Here is where the movie succeeds best, creating a terrifying sense of doom. The tripods are magnificently destructive. (And they're real tripods as in the H.G. Wells' tale, not the hovering contraptions of George Pal's 1953 movie.)

On the debit side, however, are the characterizations. Spielberg knows he must give us characters to care about, but what he delivers is generic--a broken home, divorced parents, and two children visiting their father for the weekend. Tom Cruise isn't exactly the most sympathetic actor in Hollywood. Here he plays a brash, cocky character (sort of like his blue-collar All the Right Moves character all grown up). Watching him work through problems communicating with his teenage son (Justin Chatwin) is less than compelling. With the world's future in doubt, a little domestic struggle seems quite irrelevant. Here is where Spielberg and the screenplay (by Josh Friedman and David Koepp) come up empty. Instead of taking an old sci-fi/horror story and finding ways to make us care about the human characters (as happened, for example, with Danny Boyle's zombie movie 28 Days Later), Spielberg recycles a standard background story, spending the movie's first 15 minutes setting up the domestic situation. Ho-hum.

Spielberg's real interest is spectacle and here is where the movie succeeds best: we see pieces of clothing from vaporized crowds float to earth like ghostly snow; we see highways clogged with dead vehicles and masses of wandering people; and we see residential areas devastated, with survivors cowering in basements. Spielberg gets the images of spectacle to perfection, using a documentary-like style that incorporates steadi-cam shots in a fashion similar to Saving Private Ryan. As the movie nears its conclusion, however, Spielberg lets the movie's style become nightmarish. Once Cruise and his daughter (Dakota Fanning of The Cat in the Hat) take shelter in the basement of a rural home, with Tim Robbins as the brooding (and possibly demented) homeowner, Spielberg pulls out the stops on dramatic backlighting, as if we're watching an episode of a television fright series, such as Friday the 13th. Here, Spielberg drops the steely grey tones of the movie's docudrama approach in favor of bright greens and blues. Radiating beams light up the background walls as Spielberg changes gears entirely and chucks the movie's realistic tone. This change in tone cheapens the movie. It's part of Spielberg's preference for technology over flesh-and-blood characters. He rarely has the insight into personal behavior that draws us into the lives of this protagonists, but we wows us with action and thrills.

So War of the Worlds is a mixed bag. Its technology is superior. Its vision of alien invaders is genuinely chilling. But the characters are so ordinary that you have to wonder why Spielberg bothered to spend time with them.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Paramount Pictures
Movie Web site: War of the Worlds



Photos: © 2005 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.