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Mars attacks
A film review of WAR OF THE WORLDS by Slarek
 
"No-one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that
our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own. And
as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed
and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinise the
creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite
complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our
empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast
and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes,
and slowly and surely made their plans against us." 
The prologue to Spielberg's War of the Worlds,
adapted from the novel by Herbert George Wells

 

Remember that quote – I'll be coming back to it.

1996 was something of a turning point in my cinema going. For years I had been steadily losing interest in the Hollywood product, as my viewing experience widened, as the availability of non-Hollywood films increased, and as the political subtext of Hollywood films moved steadily to the right. This trend has increasingly been highlighted by what for me has become the nadir of the Hollywood year – the big summer blockbusters, when we are regularly presented with cinema at its loudest and dumbest and requested to leave our brains at the door and watch the firework display. But that's the problem with firework displays, they tend to be all noise and light and no substance.

But in the summer of 1996 I was still trotting off to the cinema to watch the fireworks, usually in the tow of a girlfriend for whom CGI was one of the twentieth century's greatest inventions. And that summer was the final straw. Amongst the thunder and lightning there were two films that really did it for me: one was Mission Impossible, a preposterous caper film with a climax so ridiculous that I thought director Brian De Palma had taken leave of his senses. The other Independence Day, a relentlessly idiotic mess compiled almost completely from recycled bits of other, much better films. The former starred Tom Cruise, the latter was about alien invasion. Now there's a co-incidence. From that point on, summer blockbusters came and went without my patronage. Until now.

The timing of Spielberg's War of the Worlds has, I believe, little to do with chance and everything to do with world events, and in time will no doubt be looked back on as a barometer of post 9/11 America. Consider again the above quote, adapted from Wells' original novel and delivered in sober voice-over by Morgan Freeman at the start of the film. "With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe." Remember airplanes and airports before 9/11? I sat on a small plane a mere four years years before the attacks and they left the door to the cockpit open for the entire flight. Talk about infinite complacency. And then there are these aliens, who "observed and studied" us and yet remained "unsympathetic." Remind you of anyone? In case you're still not sure, they "slowly and surely made their plans against us." The 'us' of Wells were the inhabitants of Earth, but the new film is set in America and views the attacks from an exclusively American perspective, making a political reading somewhat inevitable. That these quotes are lifted almost verbatim from the novel is largely irrelevant in that context – Olivier's Henry V took its plot and dialogue from Shakespeare, but it's release in 1944 was deliberately timed as a rallying cry in the war against Nazi Germany.

War of the Worlds is in some ways the perfect source material for a parable on post 9/11 America. In Wells' day war tended to be defined in purely black and white terms – it was us and them, and if you openly rejected that viewpoint and refused to partake then you could be shot for doing so. An invading force needed no reason, no understanding, and certainly no sympathy – they were bad, they were foreign and the must be destroyed. By the 1970s, to cinematically present any real war in such diametric terms was unthinkable – indeed, filmmakers and writers had come to question the very morality of war itself, looking beyond the conflict at the long term reasons for its inception, at the suffering and beliefs of those on both sides.

That all came sharply to a halt on 11th September 2001. George W. Bush told the world that "you are either with us or against us," and huge chunks of the Middle East were painted in demonic terms. These weren't people, we were repeatedly told, they were inhuman monsters hell bent on destroying our good Christian way of life. You couldn't reason with them, and if they were prepared to kill themselves to destroy us, what could you effectively threaten them with to stop them? Pretty much any analysis of the attacks on the World Trade Centre will tell you that part of the reason the terrorists were able to successfully carry out their plan was a – by present standards at least – lacklustre approach to airport security in a country that had no reason, it believed, to conduct itself otherwise. People had been, you might say, going about their normal lives with infinite complacency. Meanwhile a group of determined terrorists, "cool and unsympathetic," were slowly and surely drawing their plan against "us."

Science fiction has a solid history as a medium for political allegory – three sperate versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers have reflected the sociopolitical state of the country and year in which they were produced – but often such a reading is only clearly evident in the fullness of time. It would not surprise me in the least if War of the Worlds finds itself so regarded by future film historians, though how positive that regard will be is another matter. The link goes way beyond the wording of prologue – much of the film's imagery seems to deliberately recall images from the 9/11 tragedy, from the destruction of buildings and merciless death of ordinary citizens to the shots of bystanders looking up into the sky as debris, clothing and God knows what else falls around them. As the family flees the first attack, Ferrier Junior asks "Is it terrorists?" I half expected his father to reply, "Metaphorically, yes." Spielberg also draws on other sources familiar to us almost exclusively through news and archive footage, from the L.A. Riots to the Holocaust and the Rwanda massacres, effectively connecting us to the events through media imagery rather than personal experience. Given the scale of what is happening, this is hardly surprising.

The religious overtones of the attacks are also played up here, and can't help but tie in to the 9/11 subtext. Where in Close Encounters the arrival of the good aliens and their heavenly mothership is announced by the formation of white clouds, the arrival of the destructive war machines here is preceded by the blackest of thunderstorms, an overly familiar colour coding for good and bad, and weather traditionally associated with satanic activity. The machines, it turns out, have been buried beneath the earth for thousands of years awaiting reactivation, and arise out of the ground like demons (complete with sinister, glowing 'eyes') released from Hell. It is surely no co-incidence in the production-designed street that the first building destroyed is a church, its steeple, its finger to God, crashing to the ground as the forces of darkness overwhelm and murder the local populace. That the machines will ultimately be stopped by God and his infinite wisdom ties the message up neatly for an audience who believe en masse that God is working for America, and will ultimately help them to smite their heathen enemies. In science fiction terms, this feels like a step back from the religious debunking by Nigel Kneale in Quatermass and the Pit, which also dealt with a long buried alien ship and images of the devil, but on a more intellectually stimulating level. Of course, this all should make War of the Worlds a fascinating subtextual experience, and it would if there was a little critical distance, but instead all of these elements are wholeheartedly embraced, resulting in a work that occasionally feels as much George W, Bush as it does Herbert G. Wells.

But does any of this matter? Summer blockbusters are rarely judged on the depth of their content, and the release of War of the Worlds has clearly been timed to stomp along that corridor. Certainly the film is much darker in tone than the usual summer blast, but the whole thing of 'darkness' has recently become an overused and uncritical promotional tool. I've lost count of the number of times of late that friends or colleagues have told me that an upcoming film will be great, not because of any specific quality, but simply because "it looks really dark," as if this alone is a qualification of excellence. I can see where they are coming from – after years of tiresomely upbeat Hollywood trash, any turn towards the dark side has to be welcomed – but let's not forget all the talk about Star Wars III – Revenge of the Sith being "much darker than the other films of the series." And what crap that turned out to be. The very violent destruction of fleeing humans in War of the Worlds is certainly way darker than anything in Sith, but I was surprised by how many people thought that this was somehow atypical of Spielberg. Really? How quickly they seem to have forgotten the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the opening twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Very Spielberg, I'd say, but also appropriate to the film – you want you good guys and bad guys defined in terms of binary oppositions, you've got it after that. The bad guys here are faceless and unleash destruction on the innocent from the interior of machines (sound familiar?) – not too surprising then that Ferrier is shown at the start of the film operating a crane at the docks, high up in a machine that is being used for construction rather than destruction.

The special effects, it has to be said, are largely superb, with the exception of a train that flies past with fire pouring from every window that looks as if it was created in a hurry on After Effects. The tripods stomp menacingly around to rhythmic industrial churning borrowed from David Lynch, blending seamlessly with the landscape and creating wide shots that look like modern day illustrations from a picture-book version of the novel. As a spectacle, this delivers, but to really work as a terrifying force it requires a human connection, and this is where I had the biggest problems with the film. Spielberg wants to get the invasion under way as soon as possible, but this leaves him very little time to sketch out his main characters, something that is done using a string of estranged family clichés so annoyingly familiar, that in the space of just five minutes I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that the main narrative purpose of the invasion was to emotionally re-unite all of the characters and restore the family unit. Oh great.

With that in mind, whether you connect with lead character Ray Ferrier or not depends very much on your screen relationship with Tom Cruise. No help is forthcoming from the script, and characters are sketched in such broad strokes – Ferrier drives fast to show his reckless side and is offhand and flip to show disconnection with his family, son Robbie is pissed off at Dad and keeps putting off doing that essay (the subject of which allows a little dig at favourite enemies the French and the fact that despite not supporting the US invasion of Iraq, they also have been invaders), and daughter Rachel is caught between her Mum's new boyfriend and her real dad – that Spielberg seems to be relying on us engaging with Ferrier not because of any recognisably sympathetic human qualities, but because he's played by the Cruise. Sorry buster, that doesn't work for me, and never has. I've yet to buy into Cruise as an action hero (in part because the projects he chooses to appear in) and as an actor only his extraordinary turn as professional misogynist J.P. Mackey in Magnolia has really gripped me. Here Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise, and thus you can threaten him all you like and I just don't care enough to get concerned. Mind you, he's never REALLY threatened – in typical action movie style, he outruns the death ray as people and cars and windows and buildings explode all around him and he never gets a single glass cut, clobbered by even the tiniest bit of debris, or affected to any degree by blast waves. When he wants to stop running and turn round to look at the tripods, its OK, because that's when they'll stop shooting at him.

But if I was left untouched by Ferrier, then I have an entirely different view when it comes to daughter Rachel. Spielberg has a history of putting annoying children in his films, from Cary Guffey's insipid infant in Close Encounters and Drew Barrymore's fist-magnet turn in E.T. to those annoying brats in Jurassic Park, but they all pale when compared to our Rachel. Never, ever in a cinema have I been so horrified by Dolby sound. No, I'm not talking about the tripods or their death rays, but Rachel's scream. It is one of the most ghastly, ear-piercingly wretched noises I have been subjected to in my entire film-watching life, and she uses it a LOT. As Spielberg's whizzy-cam circles the fleeing family car and she starts screaming for her mother, I so, so wanted one of the tripods to run up and stamp the little bastard into the ground. You want to defeat the aliens? Shove a megaphone on her face, slap her repeatedly around the head and let her loose. Job done.

As Petulant Dad, Grumpy Son and The Screamer head across country, we are treated to unfunny character comedy moments, some very unconvincing panic acting and a Knott's Landing-level family row ("You were never there!") which is ended by another ear-shattering scream, but also to the film's most genuinely chilling image involving a river and.... no, I wouldn't want to spoil that one. If the narrative has moved predictably to this point, it has at least moved, but everything grinds to a halt once the trio take refuge in the basement of paranoid survivalist Ogilvy. Tim Robbins overplays the role to a surprising degree, while Cruise goes so low key he almost grinds to a halt, moving up a gear to get all sentimental with the Screamer in a scene that few will have trouble labeling 'Spielbergian'.

Eventually the aliens show up again and I began to start wondering just what is so special about that basement. I mean, these tripods are marching across the country, laying waste to everything and everyone in their sight, yet they take ten minutes off to carry out a thorough search of this house with a snaky probe, a metallic equivalent of the water tentacle from The Abyss, then come back again a while later in case they missed something. The aliens even abandon the safety of the tripods at one point to have a more personal nose around. Man, they would have to pick THAT house to hide in. Maybe the aliens just hate rednecks.

A climactic one-on-one ends in a bang that recalls a destructively comical moment in Raising Arizona, and the very sudden conclusion to the battle, though faithful to the book, feels cinematically cut short, as if there's a director's cut waiting in the wings. To say that I was unsurprised (not to mention a little nauseated) by the ending is an an invasion-sized understatement.

In the end, War of the Worlds, despite claims of realism from some quarters, is as comic-book as Spider Man or Hellboy, and on that score would have actually benefited from not having Cruise at its centre, as this would would have helped shed the movie star baggage he brings, and maybe enabled the creation of a genuine character instead of the hurriedly drawn sketch of one that we have. There's a little too much choreography of movement to sell the realism angle anyway (check out the shot in which all the neighbours run into their back yards to watch the storm, one after the other, timed like dancers joining a chorus line), with all the expected swoops and tracks of the camera giving the film a sheen that, despite the moody lighting, is still firmly rooted in the Hollywood hills. In time the subtextual elements may well give the film a place in history as the first major genre film to spring from America's post-9/11 terrorist paranoia, but as a slice of dramatic science fiction, War of the Worlds left me soundly and sadly unmoved.

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
5 July 2005

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War of the Worlds film review by Camus