War of the Worlds (2005)
Not Just Sci-fi, but Heartfelt Survival Tale
It’s a wonderful experience to be in the hands of a great filmmaker. I love the feeling of going to the movies, forgetting all my problems, and just immersing myself in an artificial universe made real by people with skill and talent. Steven Spielberg is one of those people, and while his version of War of the Worlds might not be up there with his best, it’s still an enjoyable and emotional ride.
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a divorced father spending another weekend with his estranged kids Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin). After a rocky start, strange weather arrives followed by violent lightning strikes that impact the ground repeatedly in the exact same spot. When the earth begins to move in that spot, it soon becomes obvious that an otherworldly force is here, and it ain’t cute or friendly.
The ‘alien invasion’ plot is as old as sci-fi itself. First published in 1898, H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ has been done twice before: Orson Welles’ panic-inducing radio broadcast in 1938, and the George Pal produced, Byron Haskin directed film in 1953. Both are highly regarded as landmark productions, and rightly so. Can one of the greatest filmmakers of all time better what has come before?
The screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp wisely places the characters in front of the story this time around. This is essentially a family drama played within a fantastic setting. Right from the start (I loved the “playing ball” scene), we get well-drawn people that we instantly feel for. This is imperative because when all hell breaks loose, they are immediately on the run, and we don’t know who will live or die, but we do care.
While this updating of the story gives it a post-modern feel, fans of the story will recognize many familiar elements. While I have never read the book, I saw the 1953 film as a kid, and was glad to see many familiar scenes with a modern twist (as when a panicked crowd steals their car), right down to the understated, ironic ending.
All the actors are great. Tom Cruise is very effective as the father who barely cares about his kids initially, but learns how important they really are to him. Pixie powerhouse Dakota Fanning turns in another A-list performance, and newcomer Chatwin holds his own between the two. Tim Robbins also makes an appearance, but feels wasted in a brief and head-scratching role.
As in 1953, the effects are state-of-the-art, and very convincing. When the tripods rise out of the ground near the beginning, we are waiting for Spielberg to show us something really menacing, and he does. Once their nasty methods of destruction (and later “creation”) become apparent, you understand why Cruise is running as fast as he can.
If the movie makes any missteps, it’s when Robbins’ character appears, and what ends up happening between him and Cruise. In one scene, Cruise leaves his terrified daughter alone in the basement while blindfolded and covering her ears-all while in hostile alien territory! This just doesn’t make sense, considering what we have just seen, and how protective Cruise has been of her. It’s totally out of place, and what Cruise does is an attempt to add a dramatic element that simply does not work.
War of the Worlds is an effective updating of a classic story and doesn’t disappoint. If you are going for visceral thrills, you will get them, but you might also be surprised to get a touching family story as well.