War of the Worlds (2005)
The Plot: (VERY LOOSELY based on the H.G. Wells novel) Aliens invade Earth. Madness ensues.
Seen It Before?: Yep. Saw this in the theater, actually. It FREAKED me out, but I’ve grown to appreciate it more in recent years.
Writing (6): OK, so first off we need to address how well it addresses the source material. I’m probably going to get shot for this, but I think it certainly knows what it needs to do, even if it stumbles here and there.
Wells wrote this book as a slap in the face to English readers who had grown comfortable with the colonialism of the British Empire. He would have read about peoples being wiped out, such as the natives in Tasmania, and that definitely made him angry. So he wrote this as a way to put people in the position of the conquered and then end it with the message that invading a foreign place and killing its inhabitants is literally a crime against nature with nature, not humanity, defeating the invading aliens.
Spielberg isn’t using this film as a commentary on colonialism, but he is definitely reacting to the senselessness of mass violence and exploring the feelings of helplessness that all Americans felt when New York was attacked four years earlier in 9/11. This film was also released only months before Katrina hit and chillingly predicts the violence that erupted as the city was left to fend for itself early on in the disaster.
I think where the script trips up is when it tries to add in the whole broken family plot. I know that’s a common theme that Spielberg likes to explore, but it’s done to such an extreme level that I think it muddies things.
But this is very much a visual film, and so script issues aside, it can still be very effective.
Acting (7): Tom Cruise is genuinely good in this. Say what you will about him, but he’s a good actor. I tend to think of this film as more of a silent film in that so much of its impact is visual, so his reactions to what is happening really sell them as genuine horrifying tragedies as opposed to a backdrop to a dumb action flick, which I appreciate.
The rest of the cast is a bit shakier. Dakota Fanning gets TONS of flak for her performance, but I genuinely find it genuine. If a kid was thrown into a situation like this, they WOULD be terrified and would be upset and panicked. I guess people were expecting her to be a fully competent mature superhero with James Bond’s ability to disassociate from his emotions and deal with tragedies with cold resolve. Like…she’s a little girl, guys…
The characters I like the least are the son (I can’t even remember his name) and Tim Robbins’ character, Ogilvy. The son is selfish and petulant and adds nothing to the story except to be a bit of a source of conflict with tom Cruise’s character. And the actor just doesn’t add any layers to the character to make us invest anything in his story.
Tim Robbins is great, but again, he plays Ogilvy as so wacky that we breathe a sigh of relief when he’s removed from the story.
Visual Style (10): OK, this is where this film succeeds beautifully. For all its issues, this film looks GREAT.
Spielberg decided to shoot the film more or less from eye-level and avoid sweeping cinematic panoramas to more closely replicate the news footage/found footage look of the 9/11 attacks. We see the tripod’s invasion from the level of people. There are no Jurassic–Park-esque panoramas or Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-esque visuals. We don’t even see the main action of the invasion except for a brief look on a TV screen. This ties in with the novel in which much of the narrator’s narration happens when he’s walking through ruined cities after the attacks, looking with horror on how easily humanity has been destroyed.
This chillingly recreates how most of the world saw the 9/11 attacks. It was all via the news stories and home video and pictures. One of the most effective scenes is where Rachel sees the bodies floating down the river after some sort of calamity. We know nothing about what happened, but just seeing the aftermath is almost scarier because it’s obvious there’s nothing these people could have done.
Plus, I LOVE the design of the tripods and the aliens. They feel familiar enough that there’s no question that this is War of the Worlds and not an Independence Day clone. The tripod’s tentacle with the camera on the end is also a great callback to the film version from the 1950’s, which I appreciate. Also the scene where the tripods begin using human blood to fertilize their red weed is soooo creepy, and I dig it.
Also, this isn’t necessarily visual, but I have to say this is also one of the first movies that I saw where I was very aware of the sound design. The lightning at the beginning, the tripod rising out of the ground, the tripods’ booming calls, they all sound AMAZING.
There’s a reason this film was nominated for three Oscars in technical categories (though it lost all to King Kong).
Music (9): John Williams’ atonal score is wonderful with some great Jaws-esque pounding themes as well as some great use of choirs. Williams is one of those composers who doesn’t use choirs a lot, but when he does, he uses them very well. Apparently he used a mens choir in the score, singing waaaaay down at the bottom of their range so they’re barely audible.
I really want to see this with headphones so I can appreciate the score in its layered awesomeness. It feels like a more mature incarnation of the Jaws score, but because it doesn’t have a catchy “main theme” it didn’t get as much attention as Williams’ other scores. But it’s legitimately a really good score and takes some interesting risks that I think pays off well.
Genre (7): The original novel is a horror novel. It’s not an adventure a la Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, nor is it a fantasy romp like The Time Machine. It’s a terrifying portrait of what it is like to be conquered from the point of the view of a helpless people with no way to fight off the attackers who want to use the conquered as resources. When this film plays of up the horror aspects, it works. Near the end, in order to appease audiences who wouldn’t be able to handle a more pessimistic worldview in the wake of the horror of 9/11, the film does become a bit of an action flick where Ray is able to single-handedly destroy a tripod (which is kind of eh since in the book the only tripods they’re able to destroy is by using a ship, the Thunder Child, in a brutal kamikaze run that ultimately only delays the Martians enough so the people can escape). And then we get the military heroically shooting down the disoriented tripod, but that doesn’t bother me that much since the alien inside is already dying.
But overall, this film keeps things closer to the horror aspect of things. The first tripod attack is bewildering and upsetting, but Spielberg never lets it become an action-packed chase scene. It’s a terrifying pointless slaughter, and Ray isn’t a hero. He’s just running for his life while people are indiscriminately vaporized around him. Plus, the tension comes to a head in the basement scene where Ray is forced to become desperate enough to kill Ogilvy in order to save them, even though they are found out anyway, making the death of Ogilvy even more senseless.
Overall Thoughts: Uneven writing and intentions don’t diminish the amazing visuals and score for this film that can’t ever live up to the original book, even though it does effectively speak to Americans dealing with the horror of 9/11 effectively.
Total Score: 39/50
- Schindler’s List (50)
- Saving Private Ryan (48)
- Catch Me If You Can (46)
- E.T. (45)
- Jurassic Park (44)
- The Color Purple (44)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
- Jaws (42)
- Empire of the Sun (42)
- Minority Report (41)
- Amistad (41)
- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
- War of the Worlds (39) RT liked this one a bit more than The Terminal, but audiences liked The Terminal better.
- The Terminal (39)
- Hook (39)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
- The Sugarland Express (35)
- Always (34)
- The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
- 1941 (27)
Next up, we’ll return to the world of the historical drama!