Yet another adaptation of H.G. Wells’ oft-visited alien invasion classic, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a solid instance of summertime filmmaking representing an intelligent merger of proverbial special effects sequences and emotional weight. It may seem like a shameless money-grab to use Wells’ source material as fodder for a summer blockbuster, but with present-day global concerns about war and terrorism, it was an ideal time to reinvent the story for modern film-goers. Thankfully, master filmmaker Steven Spielberg was at the helm here; diving into the sacred realm ruled by Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay to craft a picture that easily one-ups anything the two have done in terms of characterisation, visual craftsmanship and thematic substance. These elements are not common in generic disaster or action pictures, and thus add tension and drama to the respective well-worn genres. With Spielberg once again at the top of his game here, War of the Worlds stands out as anything but ordinary or forgettable.
Written by David Koepp and Josh Friedman, Wells’ story is relocated to New Jersey in the 21st Century. The protagonist here is divorced, blue-collar working father Ray Ferrier (Cruise), who is stuck with his estranged kids Rachel (Fanning) and Robbie (Chatwin) for a weekend while his ex-wife (Otto) heads to Boston for a weekend getaway. Ray’s relationship with his two children is severely strained and his inherent deficiencies are instantly apparent, but it isn’t long before the neighbourhood is struck by violent lightning storms unlike anything they have ever seen. Initially it’s all fun and games as the residents are intrigued by the oddball weather…until giant alien tripods rise from beneath the ground, wasting no time in obliterating anything and everything in their path. Faced with a full-scale attack and the possibility of mankind’s extermination, Ray and the kids go on the run, journeying around the East Coast looking for shelter in a desperate bid for survival.
Spielberg used to be optimistic about extraterrestrials, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. reinforcing harmonious messages about intergalactic travellers. For War of the Worlds, though, the director chose to bestow aliens with the same type of menace he applied to Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs and the shark in Jaws. These aliens do not come to Earth to make peaceful contact, but to exterminate humankind and colonise the planet. Once the attack begins, War of the Worlds propels us from one phenomenal action set-piece to another. Yet, Spielberg and the writers had higher ambitions, and found time to develop a societal commentary – the film shows how grim circumstances can bring out the best and worst of human nature, with instances of mob mentality being exhibited in amidst moments of selfless bravery. Told wholly from the point-of-view of a small family, War of the Worlds possesses a jarring, horrifying immediacy, allowing the fight to survive to feel palpably real.
There are plenty of noteworthy individual set-pieces which take the breath away in War of the Worlds. The intersection scene spotlighting the tripods’ first appearance is spectacular; horrifying and brutal, and filmed with immediacy that places you in the midst of a nightmare that has come to fruition. Even better is the perfectly-realised sequence depicting Ray and the kids leaving home just as the area is annihilated. The vision of the tripods, and the CGI work which brought them to life, are first-rate (the film was nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar), while the cinematography by Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski is without a fault. The distinctive roar of the tripods is unnerving too, and War of the Worlds additionally features a John Williams score which generates immense trepidation and gets the pulse pounding. From a technical point of view, you simply cannot fault War of the Worlds. Despite being released a mere 7 months after filming began, it does not display the earmarks of a rush job.
On top of being a spectacular summer release, War of the Worlds is also a traumatic and harrowing blockbuster full of images of violence and destruction carrying devastating emotional weight. But most of the striking, horrific images are not of the cities being destroyed, but rather the eerily quiet moments after the fact, such as a river choked with corpses. There are a few visual 9/11 references as well, which enhance the emotion. However, the film’s ending is a letdown, with the aliens’ defeat seeming too quick and easy. War of the Worlds feels like two sublime, borderline perfect first acts follow by a hopelessly truncated, almost non-existent third act. To be fair, the way the aliens are defeated is fine and reflects the book’s ending, but it simply feels underdone. Not to mention, the final scenes feel generically Hollywood and feel-good, as if a committee meeting decided upon this ending to dampen the film’s otherwise bleak vision of war and annihilation. War of the Worlds is also plagued by a few Hollywood stupidities which could have easily been ironed out with a few rewrites – a video camera is seen operating after the area is hit with an EMP, and Ray’s van is completely unaffected after a huge storm in which a commercial airliner is felled right next to them.
War of the Worlds benefits from a sublime cast of actors who could both pull off disaster movie fundamentals and convincingly emote the deeper elements of their roles. Tom Cruise is excellent as Ray Ferrier. It is a testament to Cruise’s professionalism and dedication that, while watching his performance, he can make you forget about his humiliating media exposure regarding his Scientology views. Cruise captures the awe of the moment and he’s full of intensity, but his performance is affecting as well – one of the most memorable scenes depicts Ray breaking down and crying in front of his kids. Dakota Fanning receives a lot of criticism for her performance here that amounts to a lot of screaming and crying, but at least she does this stuff well. As far as child actors go, there is no-one in the business quite as good as her – she’s natural and adorable without having to mug, and she plays the emotion of being insanely scared with a believability that could put hardened Hollywood veterans to shame. Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins are also solid in their supporting roles, with Robbins especially standing out as a borderline madman who encompasses a number of the picture’s various themes beyond the basic story. Meanwhile, Miranda Otto pulled off what was required of her in an amiable fashion as Ray’s ex-wife, and Gene Barry and Ann Robinson – stars of the original War of the Worlds from 1953 – briefly appear here as well. Morgan Freeman is also on hand to provide the opening and closing narration, which is a nice touch.
By keeping the story fundamentally first person, Spielberg’s vision of this alien invasion is more immediate and personal. Additionally, a touch of comic relief is present to alleviate the pervasive sense of dread, which works because the characters feel more human. War of the Worlds succeeds because it has a focus on humanity rather than just blowing shit up. Spielberg does not skimp on the special effects since they are the film’s bread and butter, but, by recasting the destruction from an individual point of view, War of the Worlds has emotional weight.