The new WAR OF THE WORLDS is full of stuff, some of which we've seen before. It has all the special effects, the Irwin Allen Meets Roland Emmerich action sequences and an overpowering feeling of dread. It has pathos and human drama. It even has a master in the director's chair to bring it all to the screen. The one thing it seems to be missing above all else is a soul. And alas, that is what keeps WAR OF THE WORLDS from achieving greatness.
Clocking in at two hours that play like four, we begin with a most promising sign. The very words of H.G. Welles set the stage for the ultimate battle between the little guy and the alien menace. We then quickly segue into a first act so tedious, it seems like it lasts nearly an hour, instead of the relatively brief fifteen minutes. We learn that Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is basically a loser as a dad. He's long since divorced from his wife, and while he does not resent his children, he isn't overly enthusiastic about them visiting. A telling sign of his own selfishness, he goes through the paces of fatherhood, playing uncomfortable games of catch and half-listening to what they want to say, only to be bewildered when they don't greet his grade-C parenting with abundant gratitude.
This is a recurring theme throughout the film - how Ray learns to be a responsible parent, protecting his children from a horrible fate. It's a common theme in films these days, and one that has been visited by director Steven Speilberg many times. Too many times, if you ask me. I mean, of course we want to have some dramatic tension between characters. Otherwise, all we have is a film where spacemen zap everything. But after seeing this drama play out time and again, it is becoming labored and tedious. There is nothing fresh about this dynamic here and the film's continuing interest in what is quickly becoming a Speilbergian fallback is a large chink in its armor.
A strange storm occurs which puts Ray on edge. For one thing, the wind seems to be sweeping towards the storm, not away from it. For another, lightning is usually accompanied by thunder and does not generally strike the same spot two dozen times in a row. Ray is right to be scared as the earth begins to crumble and quake and large alien tripods emerge from the depths.
You may remember that the previous Cruise-Speilberg collaboration, the very entertaining MINORITY REPORT, had the tagline "Everybody Runs." That could easily sum up WAR OF THE WORLDS as well, since people start running like mad and don't stop for the rest of the film. Folks sprint down the street and are zapped into ash by the tripod's lasers. It's a long sequence that draws comparisons with INDEPENDENCE DAY, and not favorable ones. Oh, I know, INDEPENDENCE DAY was not exactly a great film. It was shameless summer popcorn, manipulative and really very hokey. But it was more fun than I had in WAR OF THE WORLDS, sad but true.
For his part, Ray does not leave his kids to fend for themselves. He returns to his house and gathers the two children up. Ray's youngest daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning - HIDE AND SEEK, MAN ON FIRE) has fear issues, while his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin - THE CHUMSCRUBBER) is an angry teen who resents his underachieving dad. Ordinarily, I would think anyone who playfully names their kids Rachel and Robbie and pretty sick in the head, but Speilberg seems intent on giving them a fighting chance.
These are some of the most interesting moments of the film, the moments directly following the first zapping. Screenwriters David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, SPIDER-MAN) and Josh Friedman (THE BLACK DAHLIA) have of course updated Wells' story from its 1898 setting. Speilberg has gone the extra mile in showing the invasion as seen through the eyes of post-9/11 America. Scenes of people looking at pictures of missing loved ones amidst a wasteland that was once a metropolis are far too familiar for comfort. Likewise, Wells enviably never imagined that two separate people would reasonably react to the invasion by asking, "Is it the terrorists?" The scenes of devastation and telltale signs of human casualties, which continue long after the film has shifted focus to the countryside, are quite striking.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Ray packs his kids up and they head to the hills in the only working car around. Why is it the only working car? Because when everyone else was pondering why their cars had stopped, Ray tells his friend in passing to try fixing something specific on the car (I'm not a gearhead, so it sounded like gibberish to me). Turns out he's right, although how he figured out exactly what the aliens broke and why is still beyond me. They flee from the city, rest up a bit, find out some shreds of info and flee some more. Then they rest, get info and flee once again. And rinse, wash, repeat.
The film is one big chase. For some, this will mean nonstop action. But for a film where the stakes were so high, what surprised me most about WAR OF THE WORLDS is that it was slow, dull and yes, boring. Everyone keeps running for the duration of the film. One character even mentions how pointless this is, and it would have been a good idea to listen to him. But alas, the script seems to be blindly running forward as well. Aliens are always in the distance, blowing their horns which sound an awful lot like Gregorian chants. Characters are introduced without explanation and are then discarded just as quickly. Too often it plays like just another disaster movie, with everyone running in a panic as aliens vaporize extras in the street. But in the film's constant need to keep moving, it seems to be standing still.
It's also another one of those films that avoids an "R" rating simply because it is a summer tentpole release, making the MPAA's claims that they aren't biased towards studio productions all the more ludicrous.
Steven Speilberg shows once again that he is beloved for a reason, and that reason is that he happens to be very good. He finds inventive ways to shoot the action, retaining images not only from Wells' novel but also Orson Welles' legendary radio broadcast which sent the country into a panic. Speilberg's use of editing, with the help of Oscar-winning longtime collaborator Michael Kahn, is top drawer.
But the thing that keeps people coming to Speilberg films is not just his crowd-pleasing mentality, but his versatility and prolific output. This time, much like in Stephen King's DREAMCATCHER, one can pick out entire sequences that seem lifted directly from earlier Speilberg films. When Ray runs from a tumbling tripod, it might as well be the Indiana Jones and the boulder from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. When Ray and his family take refuge in a basement, lights and colors dance from the windows and housewares start crashing everywhere, much like the abduction scene in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Rachel is trapped in a minivan, screaming at rampaging hordes outside, which could be mistaken for the beasts of JURASSIC PARK. Aliens are rising from the deep? Seen it before in JAWS. Even the lonely, haggard walk of displaced victims of the invasion recalls similar images from EMPIRE OF THE SUN and SCHINDLER'S LIST. And the family theme, well I've already mentioned how Speilberg has mined that to death lately. Speilberg finds new ways to shoot some of these scenes, but it all feels like we've been here before.
The acting is hit-and-miss. Much like HOUSE OF WAX a couple months back, WAR OF THE WORLDS has been eclipsed by a celebrity's headline-grabbing antics. I won't criticize Cruise's arrogant remarks here, but I will criticize his performance. He is an actor that I think has produced a fine body of work. He can deliver solid summer entertainment (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) but also some amazing dramatic performances (MAGNOLIA, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY). In WAR OF THE WORLDS, Cruise is fine, but he seems oddly detached. It's a much less effective performance than he gave in Speilberg's MINORITY REPORT. Dakota Fanning is once again almost supernaturally good. Completely convincing and one of the film's greatest characters, she upstages just about everyone. However, she does spend a lot of time screaming and hanging around Cruise's neck, so while she's very good, I would argue this year's HIDE AND SEEK is a better showcase for her talents. I swore up and down that Justin Chatwin's character was played by Jake Gyllenhall until the end credits proved me wrong. Since Gyllenhall happens to be a fine actor, you may take that as a compliment. Tim Robbins gives a performance that seems like a cross between his earlier work in JACOB'S LADDER and MYSTIC RIVER. He sometimes goes over the top, but Robbins' more subdued moments are amongst the best in the film. The screenplay also allows him to sneak in the line, "Occupation is always bad! History has taught us that!" Stick that up your keester, Mr. Prez.
Since most of the reviews seem to be positive, I guess I'll be the stick in the mud to say that I was severely disappointed in WAR OF THE WORLDS. This is a film that had everything going for it. One of the greatest directors around adapting the quintessential alien invasion classic. One of our most celebrated actors in the lead, bringing along one of our most amazing rising stars along for the ride. Everything seemed to work for this one. And while it certainly isn't one of the worst films of the year, it is all so tragically underwhelming.