H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898. Using the math skills I learned in college, I quickly figured out that this story is 107 years old. On the evening of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcasted a dramatization of the story, which in effect sent listeners into mass hysteria. Listeners across the country interpreted the reading as fact, fully convinced that the Earth was being infiltrated by aliens from an unknown world.
How naive so many of us are, not because so many took Welles’ broadcast as fact, but because so many believe that we are the only beings in the known universe. I have never grasped the idea that, throughout all the light years, millions of miles, and completely uncharted territory, we are “it.” Sure it is not something most think about often, but it is unavoidable after viewing Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Wells’ timeless story.
Spielberg has crafted one of the greatest summer blockbusters in recent history with his adaptation of War of the Worlds. The film is a triumph of suspense, jaw-dropping destruction, and flat-out terror. Using elements from nearly all of his previous films, Spielberg places us right in the middle of Earth’s losing battle with an endless number of alien tripods that turn people into dust, drink blood, and are seemingly indestructible. This is Spielberg’s finest hour since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan.
Ray (Cruise) is a dock worker in New York, divorced from his wife, Mary Ann (Otto). His two kids, Robbie (Chatwin) and Rachel (Fanning), are dropped off to him for the weekend right before the invasion begins. It’s a dysfunctional family in all respects, but soon they will have no other choice than to work together. They spend the entire film trying not to get fried by the tripods’ heat rays. That would get me cooperating real quickly.
The film gives us about fifteen minutes of back story before the aliens begin their attack. The theory is that aliens buried metallic tripods in the Earth millions of years ago. They spent that time planning their attack, and now it’s judgment day. Before long the machines are erupting from New York City streets, killing millions, and bringing out the worst in us humans.
This is a spectacle film in every sense of the word, and on that note Spielberg has delivered a barn-burner. The special effects are astounding, and my jaw was agape in much the same way it was when I first saw a T-rex in broad daylight in Jurassic Park. The buildup to the first eruption is classic Spielberg, harking back to the days of Duel and Jaws. Apprehension comes in the form of stunning silence and lack of music during the unveiling of our nemesis. The film only gets grungier and dirtier as it progresses, and Spielberg never lets up – until the ending.
Much has been made regarding the connections to post-9/11 America. It’s undeniably apparent – flyers calling for the return of loved ones, buildings crumbling, and the type of chaos that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. At the beginning of the destruction, young Rachel even asks “is it the terrorists?” The writing is on the wall, but this story is about something far greater. It’s about the unknown and something completely beyond our control. Wells asks us to believe that life is this fragile, and that one day we could all be eradicated with not one question answered. No explanation is offered as to the origin of the invaders. They just see us as a burden and completely unnecessary. This taps into anyone’s greatest fears, and that is why so many viewers will be shaken to the core by the scope of what is unfolding on screen.
The performances are all outstanding. Tom Cruise sells his working class character with ease and is surprisingly subtle throughout. He knows that if he doesn’t keep his composure he will lose his children. Cruise has the uncanny ability to play that working class type, despite the fact that we all know he is loaded beyond all belief. He also showcases his sense of humor in light strokes, adding depth to his character. The supporting cast is terrific, but it is once again young Dakota Fanning who proves that she is one of the finest child actors of her generation. She was easily the best part of the abysmal Hide and Seek, and here again she shows acting chops refined to a degree that you would not expect out of such a young actor. Her character is wise beyond her years, but never once do her reactions seem unrealistic or out-of-character. The future is indeed bright for this wonderful young actress.
The much-talked about conclusion to War of the Worlds is a lose-lose situation for Spielberg. The ending is too cheery and abrupt, and I will leave it at that. But here’s the rub: It’s how Wells intended it to be. So what was Spielberg to do? Ignore Wells’ ending, which would infuriate one crowd, or follow the novel and use its ending, which is far too optimistic considering millions of people have died and depends upon an enormous coincidence? The ending conveniently fits the Hollywood anti-downer formula, but it is also not a constructive reason to dislike the film.
In my Batman Begins review I declared that the summer movie season is officially underway. Well, now the pedal is to the metal and we have a truly memorable spectacle of a film to embrace. Time will tell if War of the Worlds will be playing on AMC fifty years from now. I have a hunch it will…if we are here.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 116 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images.
Theatrical Release: June 29, 2005
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Josh Friedman & David Koepp. Based upon the novel by H.G. Wells.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, David Alan Basche