At the Movies with Alan Gekko: War of the Worlds “05”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Sci-Fi/ Stars: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins, Rick Gonzalez, Yul Vázquez, Lenny Venito, Lisa Ann Walter, Ann Robinson, Gene Barry, David Alan Basche, Amy Ryan, Danny Hoch, Columbus Short; Narrated by: Morgan Freeman/ Runtime: 116 minutes

I feel I must confess dear reader that being a huge fan both of 50’s cinema, but also the works of sci-fi that this decade contributed to the history of cinema that I was a wee bit on the fence with taking a look at watching this big-budgeted “updating” of H.G. Wells’ timeless tale “War of the Worlds”. This is because not only do I love the original story with a passion, but also because I feel that the film adaptation from 1953 is a wonderful movie and, at least in my opinion, still quite capable of leaving any viewer in a state of both awe and terror so, like a lot of remakes in this day and age, I felt that this, even with legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg at the helm, would be completely pointless except perhaps to younger audiences who literally it seems have quite the allergy to movies filmed in black and white. Above anything else though, I guess my primary concern was that this film would focus too much on absolutely horrendously priced special effects or on the immortally good looks of star Tom Cruise. A fear that existed I suppose since the original chose not to focus on effects or movie stars so much as it chose to explore a riveting look at the effects that massive fear and panic as well as an expanding sense of desperation could have amongst the people of Earth in the event of an attempted hostile alien takeover. Well I will admit: I love being proved wrong by movies and in this case I am delighted to say that, for the most part, I was proven wrong. Indeed it may not be a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but thanks to typically masterful work from Spielberg, Cruise, and the rest of the cast and crew this is one phone call from ET that although Earth should have just let go straight to voicemail, is one you should definitely answer even though the close encounter it provides might not be the most positive in this or any other world.

The plot is as follows: War of the Worlds chooses to narrow its focus and tells its story through the eyes of a man by the name of Ray Ferrier. Ray, we quickly learn, is a decent dock worker, but the most mehhh father and divorcee as there could be in the world to that point that, more often than not, Ray’s primary concern is usually Ray himself. This all is about to change however when, during one weekend that his ex-wife politely asks Ray to look after their kids, creatures from another planet decide to invade and conquer Earth. It begins with a series of creepy lightning which results in all electricity-operated machinery shutting down. From there we begin to see enormous and extremely sophisticated tripod machines come up from the ground like they have been waiting for this for a long time and begin eliminating people left and right. Indeed their weapons obliterate anything they touch, their scouting capabilities far more advanced than any defense we put up, and pretty soon our species is in danger of being completely wiped out. Thus it is in this environment that Ray, for the first time in a long time, will have to take charge and escort his estranged offspring to be reunited with his ex-wife at her parents’ house in Boston where hopefully they will all be safe from this otherworldly mayhem…..

Now even though War of the Worlds ultimately shows that it is significantly more than a mere invasion from outer space film, it is, before anything else, a special effects bonanza that is not that different from a lot of the other movies in the disaster genre. With that being said though, I do feel that there are a few ingredients that distinguish a disaster film made by Spielberg than one say by Emmerich. First and foremost is that Spielberg chooses to utilize a rougher visual style as well as a handheld camera so that not only manage to bring both the big as well as the personal events front and center, but the viewer also gets to feel that they are a part of the action. Spielberg also manages to distinguish himself through the arenas where he chooses to focus his energy within the canvas of the film. Indeed normally someone like Emmerich’s films all choose to absolutely overwhelm a person with destruction on a global scale. This film however focuses more on a local and personal scale as well as a more polished film period. Thus this is a film that plays its cards more like something in the vein of Cloverfield rather than Independence Day. Indeed Emmerich’s disaster filmography may function best as skillful presentations, but Spielberg’s disaster film chooses to spin a complicated yet effective web of pathos and portrayals while also focusing on a select group of individuals rather than several groups thus making his film more down to Earth and, in a few ways, both engaging and more frightening as well. Also whereas Emmerich’s movies are popcorn pictures through and through, Spielberg chooses to make his characters as three-dimensional as the disaster itself, but also use the disaster to say something about humanity in the process.

Yet even though War of the Worlds is able to succeed in regards to its special effects and its range, this is also film that manages to also deliver a riveting analysis of the nature of humanity throughout the film’s 116 minute runtime. Indeed Spielberg, with the touch only a master filmmaker could provide, manages to sew this analysis subtly within the main narrative by letting the film work as an entertaining tale before anything else while all the while sowing several intriguing concepts that quite potently enhance the film and lend quite a bit of gravitas to what could have otherwise been just a plain and simply fun film with some really good special effects. Indeed Spielberg is not only able to showcase the chaos and destruction that our extraterrestrial visitors cause, but he also chooses to also show the psychological imbalance that can occur in mankind during a crisis such as this. Indeed it isn’t ironic that our main character manages to be one of the few if not the only psychologically balanced characters that is presented to us even though he is disturbed by what he witnesses, horrified for the safety of both himself and his kids, and baffled by what is going on. Despite all of that however, he still is able to keep just a little bit of composure and a little bit of sanity in this unusual time even as so many people regress back to their more animalistic instincts and utilize those instead of their given intelligence to help them survive as civilization falls apart all around them. Indeed this is a film that really focuses on the concept of human nature when viewed during a time of destruction; destruction not only people’s lives and their property, but of society period. Indeed as proposed by this film, not only is the nature of a human being not molded from within, but rather from outside forces, but also a man’s capability to function from a rational perspective does not depend on any kind of moral compass or balance of emotions; rather it is more or less based on more superficial ingredients in society than anything else. Indeed this picture does a brilliant job of showing us what human nature would look like if man had everything that was familiar taken away from him and he was left to survive on whatever mechanisms were able to rise to the surface. For some this mechanism would consist of both panic and insanity due to everything being violently taken away in a heartbeat. For those still alive and who have been able to keep their wits about them, it’s the consistency of logical thinking and an in-depth concentration on the important things in life since those are the things that help them get through even the most horrific of calamities.

Indeed War of the Worlds is able to go quite in-depth with this down-to-Earth concept through Ray’s unwavering fight to keep his kids, but with particular regard towards his daughter safe from the chaos. Indeed it isn’t just that he is persistent on protecting her physically, but we also see on numerous occasions throughout the movie that he also tries to protect her psychologically from the terror that is all around them. Terror that isn’t just death and destruction like a horrific plane crash, but also behaviors that show man is just as terrible to his fellow man as any alien menace can be like when their car comes under siege from a giant crowd of panicked marauders. Indeed War of the Worlds does a fantastic job of really showcasing the concepts of both innocence and chaos on both a physical and a spiritual level as well. Thus the film is able to brilliantly utilize the character of Ray’s daughter as a conduit of sorts that the story can utilize in order to effectively and potently showcase the evil side of mankind that can come about in the face of any crisis that man finds himself saddled with in the course of its existence on this planet or any other in the entire universe.

It is also worth noting that, once again, Spielberg has managed to gift his film with a strong and capable cast that shows they have what it takes. Not only to go through the Disaster film checklist, but to also be able to present the deeper concepts at work that are all over the film like a group of alien invaders in the ruins of what was once a great city, but now stands more as a monument to our time on this planet. This of course starts with Running Man Monthly Magazine founder Tom Cruise and even though in all fairness this does not top what he was able to accomplish with Spielberg in Minority Report, he still provides a typically dependable performance in this. Indeed not only does he showcase the wonder at first of these new arrivals, but is then able to evolve that, once things go south, into concern for getting himself and his kids to safety and actually transforms into a much better person and father than he is at the beginning of the story thus giving us a main character who actually grows as a person even while the world around him gets just a wee bit smaller. We also get wonderful work from Dakota Fanning as she manages to showcase that her role in Man on Fire was not a fluke by any stretch. If anything, she simply manages to take control of the screen and showcases a comprehension of acting that not a lot of performers even twice her age can comprehend. Indeed in this film, she really manages to give audiences a character that may be in a seemingly never-ending state of fear, but who as the film goes on becomes more and more comprehensive of just what is going on around her. We also get wonderful support work from Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins though I think Robbins is a wee bit more noteworthy despite his role being an extended cameo of sorts. This is because not only is his character surprisingly engaging, but also because he, in his 20-30 minutes of screen time, manages to encapsulate a lot of what this picture is trying to say about humanity when placed in a crisis.

All in all though, despite all the positives I mentioned, in many respects it really does seem like either Spielberg really was trying to narrow this down into a 2-hour film or the budget simply ran dry. To be honest, I don’t think the latter answer fits since I am pretty sure that the effects department’s budget might have put a dent in our national debt. Regardless the reason I bring it up is because this film honestly feels like it is just rushing to be done and over with. Indeed had this film chosen to be grander in scale and epic in its scope then I honestly feel that this could have been a genuine modern classic. As it is however, this is nothing more than just a pretty good film. Granted this film also has an ending that is slightly over-the-top and clichéd yet it really isn’t enough to totally drive you nuts; just perhaps sigh and shake your head a little bit. However please do remember dear reader that these are just little nitpicks I have chosen to showcase since seldom few films are genuinely perfect in every way plus this type of thing is going to occur when you have a beloved narrative such as this. Indeed this kind of thing occurred with Star Wars, and it really is no different here. Indeed there are always going to be people who just plain and simply won’t be able to respect or understand just what Spielberg was trying to pull off here. Nevertheless when all is said and done, War of the Worlds is still a fun, visually phenomenal, well-cast, and actually frightening to some extent story that is given to all of us by one of the best modern filmmakers in the business….even IF it could have been significantly better. On a scale of 1-5 I give War of the Worlds “05” a solid 3.5 out of 5.