Yadda yadda spoiler warning yadda yadda.
Setting Sarcasmatron to "stun"...
You might've missed it, but along with being a public eccentric Tom Cruise is also in a movie this week. Apparently there's some sort of lack of information available on this topic this summer, so here's the skinny: The celebrities, those people "exposed" doing "crazy" stuff on Access Hollywood? Many of them, in addition to behaving in societally-atypical ways for your amusement, are in a profession called acting. They do so in movies, which are kind of like TV but usually longer. These "movies" are then shown in "theaters" before making their way to a space on the DVD rack an apparently large number of you will pass by on your way to purchase the first season of "Desperate Housewives." Yeah, I was surprised, too.
And so here it is. Steven Spielberg's $130 million, ultra-restrained-shooting-schedule summer opus "War of The Worlds." The last great hope, we're told, of the studios to avoid dubbing 2005 "the summer of Slump." It's been more talked-about for the circumstances of it's existance, it's budget and the behavior of it's star than it has for it's actual merits for a year now, but here it is finally available for judgment on it's own merits. So here goes...
If "War of The Worlds" cannot end the "slump," then it does not deserve to be ended. If audiences are willing to pass on rousing, psychologically-intriguing and deftly executed works like this, then it may be time to give some credence to the idea that the "slump" is more evidence of a lack of taste in the audience than a lack of quality in Hollywood's output.
This isn't the first or even tenth review site on anyone's rotation, so by now you know the score: The film updates H.G. Wells book, the patient-zero of alien invasion yarns, to present day New Jersey and updates the aliens from Martians to maybe-but-maybe-not-Martians. Cruise's less-than-heroic dock worker Ray Ferrier has weekend custody of his kids Rachel and Bobby (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) when freakish worldwide lightning storms knock out most of Earth's electricity. This presages the alien invasion, culminating in the baddies' giant Tripod war machines erupting out of the ground and laying waste to the countryside. Rachel is panicked nearly to the point of a shock-coma, and Bobby is immediately jazzed to join the vengeful military counterattack on the invaders, but Ray is running on the only parental instinct he seems good at: Protect-and-survive.
There we have the film's first stroke of brilliance: Ray Ferrier is not a heroic, admirable or even especially likable guy. It's immediately easy to understand why he's divorced and why neither of his children seem thrilled to be staying with him. He and Bobby fight like a pair of perpetual adolescents despite only one of them having an excuse for such, while wise-beyond-her-years Rachel sits idly by losing faith in the male gender. When the invasion goes down, his strategy is to hijack a working car and get as far away from the aliens as he can.
It's Bobby who's the "heroic" one, risking his life to save fellow escapees dangling from a gangplank in one scene, and eventually heading off to join what he percieves to be the Charge of the Light Brigade, but he's also shown to be rash and self-endangering in his grand gestures. Likewise, Tim Robbins turns up as a weapons-hording redneck survivalist (fuuuuuunny) named Oglivy who plans for La Resistance but turns out to be unbalanced and a danger to the safety of those around him, leading to probably the darkest moment involving the "hero" of any film this summer.
Making Ray an antiheroic, only gradually less-unpleasant jerk also gives Spielberg the necessary alternative-perspective to differentiate his film from any other big-scale alien invasion films: Like the novel and the famous Orson Welles' radio broadcast, this "War" is seen through the eyes of people who spend most of their time fleeing or hiding from it. Save for the instances wherein the Ferriers are unable to avoid coming face-to-"face" with the invaders, we mainly see the Tripods and the havoc they wreak in powerfully composed longshots. Up until the third act, the main "human-level" menace to the heroes are a creepy serpentine probe snaking around a basement shelter and, briefly, the invaders themselves whom I'm happy to report are basically old-school Bug-Eyed Monsters and not the usual Geigeresque knockoffs.
In fact, there we have the OTHER masterstroke, one which I think will form the basis of most complaints about this film but at the same time makes me love it all the more. My favorite "style" of fantasy/sf filmmaking is that in which the silliest and most impractical genre concepts are treated with absolute unblinking sincerity and realism, and this is the motif Spielberg is working for all it's worth here. "WOTW" determinedly throws out ALL the "modern" tropes of alien movies and mythos, from Roswell to Groom Lake to "X-Files" to "ID4" to Spielberg's own "Close Encounters" and goes way, way, WAY back to basics of Welles' novel and the generations of pulp, pop-art and B-movies it inspired: Bug-Eyed Monsters with creepy suction-tipped fingers stomping across the cityscapes in clunking mechanical horrors walking on skyscraper-sized spindly legs and blasting indiscriminately at fleeing humans with Death Rays. Later, said Tripods take to scooping up human victims with long tendrils and depositing them in (really) big bird cages hanging down from their chasis.
This kind of retro-fetishisim is either going to rub you the right way or turn you off. Me, I adore it. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, awards the film a paltry 2 stars based almost entirely on his unwillingness to accept the inherent impracticality of the Tripods. He will not be the only person to have this reaction.
What works for me, wonderfully so, is that Spielberg elects to play all of this 100% straight. As far as the tone of the film and it's characters are concerned, there's nothing impractical or silly and everything terrifying about the Tripods and their operators, and he's a good enough filmmaker to actually pull it off: The large-scale destruction and scenes of society tearing itself apart in panic are the stuff of disaster movie legend, but he really excells when the Death Rays are unveiled. Here is one of scifi's oldest and generally goofiest tropes, a beam of light that vaporizes it's victims instantly, but the film dwells on the ickier aspects to startling effect. Death Ray-blasted humans explode into clouds of instantly-cremated ash (leading to a great shock scene in which Cruise realizes he's literally covered in the cremains of his neighbors) leaving their empty clothing to flutter down to Earth in grim tableaus that bear impossible-to-be-accidental similarity to 9/11's eerie shower of office paperwork. ("Is it the terrorists!!??" screams Rachel as they flee the initial destruction of New Jersey.) Come the third act, we also get the most unnerving explaination yet for the strange red weeds that Wells' martians seemed to be terraforming the planet with.
This is big stuff, exciting stuff, smart stuff and just plain awesome stuff. It'll be worth seeing how people react to this, especially the decision to stick with the less outwardly crowd-pleaser aspects of the original story, and whether or not people are yet ready to see the still-smoldering visual touchstones of the national 9/11 experience so broadly transposed onto a fictional scifi tale. But right now go see it, so the discussion points can begin.
FINAL RATING: 9/10