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(Herbert) George and Pendragon
A preview and review of WAR OF THE WORLDS by Camus
 
"...intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with
envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us." 
Herbert George Wells,
Chapter 1 – The Eve of the War from War of the Worlds (1898)

 

Did you have the same reaction to the early Spielberg teaser trailer as I did? "...intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic?" Why was it necessary to rewrite Wells' text? I swiftly and unashamedly stood corrected. Spielberg's marketing folks dutifully did go back to Wells. The rewrite (and subsequent erroneous 'correction') was due to the voice over featured in Jeff Wayne's 'concept' double album, a recording still a sprightly seller after many years (and soon to be again). On the disc, it's Richard Burton's velvet, chocolate delivery, the very essence of 'the last word' which fooled me into thinking it must be genuine Wells. Of course his re-write was "minds immeasurably superior to ours..." which has a ring to it but always go for the real thing. That used to be a mantra of mine. That was until sugar water purveyors, Coca Cola, soiled the association. It is the real thing if you advertise ten teaspoons of sugar in every can.

So why aren't we going for The War Of The Worlds, (the 'real thing'?) a Pendragon production directed by Timothy Hines? Well, probably because it was rushed to DVD bypassing the theatrical run to ride on Spielberg's coat-tails. I've not seen it but by accounts, it's faithful (and therefore very long) and the CG is eminently enthusiastic but evidently 'not as expensive as ILM'. The Internet Movie Database contributors have been somewhat harsh. Its selling points are accuracy (it's set at the turn of the 19th century) and the afore mentioned faithfulness to Wells' source novel. This is such a credible and potent example of what really drives movies these days. What's the marketing budget?

Pendragon had announced after 9/11 that their updated version of Worlds (get that? ...their updated version) had been shelved but many urged them on to shoot the film as written in the novel. Even Paramount gave their lawyerly blessing previous to knowledge of the Spielberg/Cruise involvement. And it has been about five years in development and pre-production. But then Timothy Hines (with all due real respect) is not Steven Spielberg.

Sometime in early 2004, David Koepp delivered his screenplay – an update of the same novel – to Spielberg who, apparently, was so, so taken with it, he had to make it NOW. Tom Cruise loved the script and his usually booked-years-in-advance schedule became free enough for the two, true Hollywood superstars to bang out their version in an inordinately small amount of time. Suspicions are merely suspicions but the speed at which the project was mooted and 'shooted' does point towards wanting to get 'their version' out before Pendragon's but here is the rub. Who has the larger marketing budget? End of argument. If anything, Pendragon will ride some free publicity. But Spielberg and Cruise could not possibly have been phased by a faithful retelling of the story, even if it was to be released in the same year.

As of this writing, I have not seen Spielberg's version but I have dangerously high hopes. This man gave us Jaws and Close Encounters. After going Color (sic) Purple faced for Oscar recognition and then following on with what seemed to be a whimsical and peer-acceptance baiting line of choices, he announced War of the Worlds. I accept Spielberg's place in the current Hollywood pantheon but I long for him to return to his roots, his almost evangelical zeal in telling hugely entertaining stories with wit and flair without entertaining perceptible Oscar ambitions. When he referred to his Schindler double Oscar win as a thirst quenching experience after a long period of drought, I had to question his motives. Audiences loved his work and the Academy seemed to deem his work slight in comparison to more worthy works and subjects. To hell with the Academy (but peer recognition must be high on Spielberg's agenda). It seems extraordinary to think of Spielberg as insecure but I guess it dogs us all. I am fervently hoping Steven Spielberg has returned to us. I am hopeful. I am bursting at the seams to see War of the Worlds and in about 48 hours, I will have.

the review

 

"...slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest
things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.
Herbert George Wells,
Chapter 8 – Dead London from WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898)

 

48 hours later... I don't know about God's wisdom...

It's... it's...

Oh, it's wonderful! Steven Spielberg, welcome back to doing what you do best – ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I've just come back from a screening and I'm buzzing. I'm 44 years old, whining on about a film-maker whose work I used to adore as a youngster and he's re-ignited that same giddy passion that had me first in line twenty five years ago. If I had to praise in order, the Koepp (and the co-credited Josh Friedman) screenplay is taut, funny and completely realistic. The direction is first class (the 'big' money moments are all peripheral to the family unit attempting to stay together) but the production design and special effects are exemplary. I single those out because Spielberg can't hog all the credit. Yes, it's his decision to use that design and not this design but I once saw George Lucas okaying an alien design at Skywalker Ranch (in a documentary you understand though I have shook his hand and exchanged a grunt or two) and it hit me like a solar plexus punch. He pays very creative people to do all the work – and then some – and the 'genius' goes in and picks what he likes. I know film is an intensely collaborative art-form (and dear George can't fill all those pixels by himself) but it depressed me. This is why I have to single out ILM's contribution and the production designer, Rick Carter. Their work is faultless.

It's the reality of the fantasy that's so beguiling. The tripods (which we'll come to in a moment) interact with absolute believability in the suburbs and town centres of New Jersey. Whenever they are seen, there is no question of their utter reality. Even the malign extraterrestrials (which Spielberg is obliged, nay forced to show us) feel like they belong in the environment despite their alien nature. Yes, we are absorbed in what 'they' might look like (Paramount and Dreamworks did a phenomenal job, in a world of file sharing and leaky web sites, at keeping a lid on these designs). In the trailer you see what appears to be a tripod. Nope. It's only the foot of the tripod (also a three legged structure). These machines are huge and although they don't cry 'Uuuulaaa', they do emit a sound perilously close in nature to Spielberg's benign mothership's first blast of communication in Close Encounters. But here it's chilling. The tripods are malevolent in a way that a steamroller is malevolent to an ant. They give the air of being utterly invincible and it's a sign of secure and confident film-making when anyone you ever care for in the film is taken aboard one of them. They have to be dead or certainly soon to be dead, don't they?

The creatures are tri-pedal and feature certain design elements for which we have to nod very aggressively to Patrick Tatopolous's reworking of Giger's alien for Independence Day. But they work. They are suitably scary, suitably alien and in no way do they invite derision or laughter. Even the homage (call it what you will, it's a steal from Byron Haskins fifties' War of the Worlds) of the sick alien groping down the ramp at the climax works very well. At least the soldier didn't feel for a pulse – which is a plus. This is CG in absolute deference to the story being told – just as it should be. Bravo.

More pluses: Cruise is not exactly stretched (a good character actor could have played this role effortlessly) but credit where credit's due. Cruise (as a dysfunctional dad who, over the course of the film, becomes ever so aware of his lackadaisical definition of fatherhood) is very convincing. He doesn't have an arc in the rather hackneyed Hollywood definition of the term. Thank Christ for that. It was what I was really afraid of. It's his selfless actions and not the reactions from those around him that earn him brownie points from the audience. In a protracted scene of great tension in a madman's cellar, you expect the precocious but effortlessly natural Dakota Fanning (Cruise's movie daughter) to 'give in' and say what a wonderful dad she has really. But she never does and it's to the film's credit that it lets the audience decide how good a father Cruise's character ends up being. There is a decision made in that cellar that is never shown or made clear that would change any man forever but as it's based on the paternal instinct, whatever was done behind the closed door seems eminently right. That it's accompanied by Fanning's whispered rendition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's 'Hushabye Mountain' makes the scene enormously compelling.

There are stand out shots and scenes, some of which beg to be revisited and pored over on DVD. Fleeing from the first glorious (and vicious) attack, the threesome of Cruise, his son and daughter, bicker and panic in the only working vehicle in the state. No one knows what's really going on. The kids are scared (as they should be) and Cruise is not up for explaining what he saw. He has the ash of those burned to a crisp by the alien's heat-ray in his hair. He just needs to get away. It's a scene inside a car that takes place outside and inside it over a long period of time. In one shot. Yeah. In one shot. I have no idea how it was achieved (I'm a smart-ass and could guess throwing terms about like digital stitching and CG backgrounds) but it's tremendously affecting. You are in that family. You are asking the same questions. But there are no answers. Aliens? Schmaliens! There is also a surreal scene in which items of clothing fall from the skies. Your imagination runs riot (which I suppose is the intention). The aliens are grabbing human beings and doing what to them? All is revealed but... Boy, was that image pregnant with exquisitely terrifying possibilities. The only nod to what's going on in the wider world is provided by a news team that has recorded images of the Independence Day variety. It's also a great throwaway that all the fan-boy scenes of tripod mayhem are played out for Cruise's benefit on a tiny TV monitor inside a mobile news gathering van.

The story is very simple. Cruise is given custody of his kids (son and daughter) while ex-wife and new husband go on holiday. The kids aren't happy. Cruise witnesses the rise, from underground, a tripod alien machine that proceeds to incinerate every living thing in the vicinity (Cruise does make a few miraculous escapes but then, he's Tom Cruise, what did we expect?). He bundles his family into the only working car and drives to his wife's house. No one there (they are, as was said, on holiday). After a huge disaster outside the front door, the family move on to catch a ride on a ferry out of state (not a great idea considering current events) and after giving up his son, anxious to fight, father and daughter hole up in a cellar.

Things go from worse to even moreso as the aliens secure the cellar (again direct quotes from Wells and Haskin's movie). The denouement (which I'd hate to spoil for those unfamiliar with the source novel, the album and the Pendragon version) – so look away now – is identical to the novel that comes as both a welcome surprise and a somewhat frustrating experience. The very first thought that entered my head when I knew that Spielberg was planning his remake was "How is he going to conclude the story given the aliens' invincibility?" Well, with deference and respect, he does what Wells did. No bad thing but the movie does end on a "Oh, OK." Rather than a rousing rout of alien ass. To be fair, that's Roland Emmerich's take on things. I admire and respect Spielberg's movie for sticking with the original despite how much I was looking forward to seeing how they may have ended it differently.

Oh, just go and see it. It's about as entertaining a two hours you could expect from a summer Hollywood movie. It may not go down as a classic in times to come but it goes down as a damn good night out. That's the No. 3 summer movie in the TICK "Yes!" for good... What's going on? Hollywood is 'working' again.

Colour me scared but inordinately pleased...

War of the Worlds

USA 2005
116 mins
director
Steven Spielberg
producers
Kathleen Kennedy
Colin Wilson
screenplay
David Koepp
Josh Friedman
from the novel by
H.G. Wells
cinematography
Janusz Kaminski
editor
Michael Kahn
music
John Williams
production design
Rick Carter
starring
Tom Cruise
Justin Chatwin
Dakota Fanning
Tim Robbins
Miranda Otto
David Alan Basche
review posted
1 July 2005

related review
War of the Worlds review by Slarek