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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

War of the Worlds Steven Spielberg 2005

Private Ryan's Day Out

One of the more difficult things about reviewing films (as if there were actually anything truly “difficult” about whining publicly) is balancing the various elements that together comprise the filmgoing experience. Say a script is great, but one of the lead actors is wretched – you can still enjoy the experience intellectually, but your identification is lost. Is this movie “better” or “worse” than a film with a great central performance but a stupid, unsatisfying script? Or a well-crafted story with sadly amateurish production values or visual effects? Or anything featuring a sassy animal, talking babies, or Tara Ried?

In Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, we have a particularly difficult set of facts: this is a searing, jaw-dropping work of pure testicle-shrinking intensity that makes Saving Private Ryan look like Baby’s Day Out. It boast incredible special effects, gorgeous photography, smart dialogue, and solid, even superior central performances (yes, I just gave Tom Cruise an oblique compliment). But it also has one of the most confounding endings I’ve ever seen – and ending that is able to turn what I had grown convinced was one of the greatest movies I’d ever seen into something I didn’t even want to remember in the span of about 4 minutes. It’s the cinematic equivalent of drinking booze so cheap that you get the hangover while you’re still drunk.

The vast majority of this movie is simply as good as it gets. The story begins in Bayonne, New Jersey (as any self-respecting apocalypse should), where “Johnny Six-Pack” Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise -- and yes, he pulls off working class quite well) is already late getting home to receive his kids for their designated weekend with Dad. His ex (Miranda Otto) and her husband have a thin, friendly patience with Ray's free-wheeling ways -- more patience, in fact, than his kids, who openly regard him as the middle-aged loser that he actually is. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning of the abysmal Hide and Seek) is clearly his intellectual superior (despite displaying some early psychological issues that will likely blossom in her teens) and his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) definitely has some unresolved beef with his pops for being a bit of a deadbeat, so the stage is set for a supremely uncomfortable weekend -- and of course, a tearful reconciliation of truly Spielbergian proportions.

As the three bicker and posture in Johnny's dumpy little house under the bridge to Manhattan (this includes his son's stealing his car and his daughter's having the gall to order hummus for dinner), something strange is brewing… literally. A series of lightening storms that are clearly not natural sweep the area, and Ray goes to investigate. Within 20 minutes enormous machines have burst out from beneath the streets, the entire town is rubble, and Ray and his kids are in the only working automobile in the Northeast, bound for Mom's house in the suburbs. Will they make it up to Boston to reunite with their family? Will the giant alien invaders destroy the world before they make it past Blauvelt? Or will the rapidly panicking (and more rapidly dwindling) remaining human population prove to be more of a threat than the aliens themselves?

Honestly, if you've read the book or seen the original film, you know what the answer is. And I'll get to that in a minute. But first, let me say this: this movie scared the pants off me. From the moment the lightning storms scare Tom and Dakota under their kitchen table, I was hooked. Hushed, appendage-tingling anticipation is something that no one can do better than Spielberg when he's on his game (think of the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park, or the scenes with little Ben and his mother in Close Encounters), and here the slowly mounting dread as the attack begins to take shape is masterfully done.

As the form and intention of the attackers becomes more apparent, Ray and his family are forced through more horrifying predicaments, including a nightmarish ferry ride, a standoff with a murderous mob, and a respite in a cellar with an increasingly creepy Tim Robbins, who thinks that Ray’s tactic of running from the threat rather than staying to face it is cowardly and ineffective (it’s also telling that his character has nothing left to lose, while Ray has his kids to think of). As Ray’s family crawls its way toward Boston, it’s clear that Spielberg isn’t simply exploring the possible impact of a nifty sci-fi alien invasion here – this is a full-on war film, and these experiences are no different in the end than what refugees in any war-torn country go through. The panic, desperation, and fury are intensely palpable – at any given moment, all could be lost, and all hope could be abandoned. In that way, this is more Saving Private Ryan than E.T., as Speilberg has given us yet another hellish vision of what war does to families, cities, and individuals. Do not go in expecting Speak-N-Spells and glowing fingers.

Instead, expect Dakota Fanning (omygodomygod) ripping your heart out of its tobacco tin and stomping it on the ground every tim she opens her mouth or looks towards the camera. Expect Tom Cruise doing an excellent job of playing a man who is constantly about to lose it but whose obvious love for his kids helps him keep it together. Expect some of the most harrowing disaster scenes to hit screens in a long time – imagine Titanic meets Independence Day while Godzilla was paying a visit, and you’ve got some idea of what happens. The scene where Ray and the kids are mobbed in their car by a huge crowd of refugees is the stuff of nightmares, and the ferry scene had me shaking my head – like truly great sci-fi, it will leave you stunned like a deer in headlights, reminding yourself that what you’re seeing simply can’t happen.

To my absolute shock (and delight), Spielberg is not afraid to “go there” when it comes to wiping out the human race – I don’t know who pissed in his Wheaties, but he directs this morality play with an iron fist. Gone are the cute-and-fuzzy moments of Spielbergs past – or, rather, there are a few here, but as they’re seeped in such absolute horror, they actually don’t seem so cloying anymore. Hell, in the face of continued imminent annihilation, a little levity is a welcome reprieve. Once Ray and his family start running, they really don’t stop – the pace of the action is near-excruciating, and when Ray and daughter Rachel hide out in the cellar with Ogilvy (Robbins), even this welcome bit of rest turns sour quickly, leading to one of the most disturbing moments of the film. What Spielberg is breaking down here is: How far do the lines between right and wrong slide when you have your family to defend, or your country? Is it more noble to stand your ground or to find a safe haven for the weak? Or more simpy, what is the value of a single human life? Spielberg lets each of these questions play out deliberately, and with the help of Cruise’s impressively grounded performance, the moments of struggle resonate beautifully amid the chaos. It’s both intensely epic and intensely personal – a near-impossible balancing act that Spielberg executes brilliantly for the first 100 minutes.

However, the climax (or rather, the lack of climax) undermines this groundwork enormously, to the point where the adrenaline rush gives way to a mild hangover during the end credits. I won’t give anything away, but the conclusion is just not nearly cinematic enough for a film that has been non-stop action and emotion from the time it hit the ground. Now, in the novel and in the 1953 version, which are sci-fi dramas rather than action films, the abrupt and somewhat academic ending works just fine – within the arc of a drama, it’s not a jolt to the system to be set down gently in the last act. But when the film was reconceived as an action movie, I’m surprised there wasn’t more consideration given to the fact that the ending feels like finishing a marathon by running straight into a wall. Sure, there is an added bit of business after the cellar scenes that tries to approximate an action climax, but it simply doesn’t work, and the result is a sinking feeling not unlike the kind you’d get as a child when you’d realize how a birthday party magician was doing his tricks.

It’s funny to consider that, in that regard, the recent film that War of the Worlds really resembles most is the pretentious gas-bag High Tension, which had no problems toying with audience’s expectations and redefining the laws of physics in order to pull of a last-minute parlor trick. Here, there’s no trick – just a lack of completion – but the feeling of being led into the woods and left there is the same. In the case of High Tension, I had little forgiveness for the filmmakers, because their tactics were devious and their “point” was pointless, even offensive. Here, Spielberg’s raw materials aren’t exactly conducive to the kind of machine he wants to build, but he does it anyway – which may be a poor judgment call, but certainly nothing malicious or misleading. And in the end, the message here is valid, painful, and real – not simply outdated pop psychology prettied up with smoke and mirrors. Much like Speilberg’s flawed but earnest (and I’d argue, brilliant) A.I., War of the Worlds may be a film you have to want to like – but it’s definitely worth wanting.

Rating (out of 5):