The Barenaked Archives – War of the Worlds

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

War of the Worlds posterLike many people I know, I’ve been getting physically ill over the amount of time Tom Cruise has spent in the press lately, extolling his love of Katie Holmes and Scientology (though not necessarily in that order). However, that didn’t mean I was going to pass up a chance to see that which he was supposed to be promoting: his latest coupling with director Steven Spielberg, War of the Worlds, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. The trailers promised creepy basements, freak storms, and mass destruction in general.

Not only does Spielberg deliver on that promise, he crafts an effective alien invasion/survival story without resorting to most of the tired stand-bys of that genre.

Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a divorced, blue-collar worker whose ex-wife has just dropped off their kids, daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), for the weekend. Ray’s much better at handling cars than at handling his kids, and neither Rachel nor Robbie is afraid to call him on it. That has to change fast when a strange lightning storm hits, a precursor to something more sinister, and Ray’s only thought becomes to get his kids to Boston and their mother.

The first rule of alien invasion movies that Spielberg breaks is in his choice of protagonist. Ray is not a top-level general in the army. He’s not the president. He’s not an important scientist who’s been studying these aliens for years. None of the aforementioned characters even appear in War of the Worlds, and it’s a blessed change.

Ray’s a regular guy with regular problems, and he isn’t even a very sympathetic regular guy. He’s 30 minutes late to meet his kids. He lets his pregnant ex help his daughter with her suitcase. He’s got engine parts strewn around his kitchen and the only food he has is in the form of condiments. And the primary reason he heads to Boston when all hell breaks loose is to get his kids back to his ex because she can take better care of them than he can.

Tom Cruise does a good job of keeping Ray relatively likable, despite his faults, and you buy it as he becomes more and more concerned with keeping his kids safe. Dakota Fanning plays the same precocious, neurotic child that she does in all her other movies, only this precocious, neurotic child spends a lot more time crying and screaming.

Of course, you can’t talk about this movie without discussing the special effects. Unfortunately, the words that best describe such effects are those such as “cool” or “sweet” preceded by certain words that one can’t say on a school-sponsored website. The first appearance of the tripods will blow your mind, and the destruction they wreak is just absolute. They alternate between vaporizing people and capturing them. Their shields won’t let anything pass. They can go over land or under water. They’re just faceless, emotionless, devastating machines, and it’s truly frightening.

Spielberg eschews other common elements of alien disaster movies. There is no token comic relief character. There is no token love interest and thus no token love subplot, thank heaven. (There is a token crazy character, for which Tim Robbins was perfect.) There are no shots of major landmarks getting vaporized. All we see in the film is what happens to Ray and his kids, and keeping the focus so tight forces the tension to skyrocket. And the end is definitely not what one expects from this movie genre, although (for those of you who have read the novel), it is in keeping with the end of the book.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. The aliens bear a striking resemblance to those in Independence Day, which is kind of a let down. When the tripods first appear, all electrical things stop working, including those battery-operated, yet two guys have cameras to take pictures and videos of the tripod. And, with a film that clocks in at just under 2 hours, they could’ve added a little bit more in the way of resolution. I’m not asking for everything tied up in a bow, but I am asking for the filmmakers to give us an idea of what’s going to happen next.

By making such a huge film about a large-scale invasion but keeping it a survival story about a family, Spielberg makes War of the Worlds very effective and surprisingly tense. It’s a great summer movie and worth the time.

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