War of the Worlds

July, 2005, Thriller

Directed by:Steven Spielberg

Starring:Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, and Tim Robbins

War Of The Worlds

Steven Spielberg’s update of the novel by H.G. Wells devotes a lot of time, money and star power to this oft-told tale, (remember the 1953 version starring Gene Barry?) most memorably brought to life by Orson Wells in his famous radio broadcast of 1938. That version sent people shrieking into the streets; this one doesn’t even come close to inspiring that kind of reaction.

Spielberg’s oeuvre represents some of the most commercially successful and artistically frustrating films of the last few decades. Along side the enormously popular pieces like Jaws, E.T and Close Encounters of the Third Kind can be found expensive disappointments such as Always, 1941 and Artificial Intelligence: AI. Brilliant at visualization, (will any director ever duplicate the power of the Normandy invasion Spielberg delivered in Saving Private Ryan?) and possessed of a unique ability to fathom what the public will find fascinating, Spielberg often revisits old themes, mining them anew in his prodigious output. As a result his films, while often relentlessly middle-brow, are always slickly done and rarely uninteresting. 

It’s quite a surprise then, to discover that the director’s typical flair abandons him here; despite a fitfully interesting opening sequence, the movie never builds the kind of dramatic tension Spielberg and Hollywood icon Tom Cruise obviously intended. While not exactly dull, this two hour depiction of a space ship invasion from outer space lacks the excitement, zest and wide-eyed wonder of Spielberg films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Catch Me If You Can.

Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced longshoreman on the New Jersey docks who’s among the first to experience what aliens have to offer earthlings. He rounds up his sullen teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious young daughter Rachel, (Dakota Fanning) steals a car and heads for Boston to seek refuge with his ex-wife’s parents. The journey includes a car-jacking, near drowning in an overturned river ferry and a seemingly endless sojourn in a root cellar with a demented civil servant named Harlan Ogilvy, (Tim Robbins) who alternates between verbally threading the invaders and haranguing Ray about what strategy the human race will have to pursue in order to survive. By the time they do battle in the dark recesses of their self-chosen dungeon, the audience has long since lost interest in anything any of the characters has to say.

Filled with repetitious special effects and shots that linger well past the point of maximum tension, Worlds limps to a finish in the leaf-strewn streets of Boston’s back-bay, Ray’s nuclear family finally re-united while Morgan Freeman’s voice-over explains how earthly microbes made it possible for the good guys to win.

Despite some early tension generated by the initial invasion, Worlds soon lapses into a narrative torpor that juxtaposes segments depicting Ray’s difficulties in communicating with his children and scenes of three-legged mechanical killing machines reminiscent of the hardware George Lukas has employed to much better effect in his Star Wars saga. (Inconsistencies abound; the aliens seem intent on capturing large numbers of humans to feed on, but spend an inordinate amount of time and energy inexplicably killing and discarding lots more of them. They relentlessly seek Ray and his daughter for no apparent strategic reason other than that they’re the film’s stars.)  Josh Friedman’s script attempts to weld a soap opera of family alienation onto a straight-forward plot about the destruction of the planet; the resulting miss-match assures that neither thread of the storyline compliments or reinforces the other.

Cruise, who can do cocky/nasty with the best of them, (Magnolia, Collateral, The Color of Money) doesn’t fare nearly as well when he’s required to display something approaching credible parental sensitivity; in arguing with his rebellious son and consoling his distraught daughter, the actor just doesn’t convey the what the screenplay calls for -- a believable human being. Instead, the audience has to settle for a movie star’s awkward impersonation of a father in crisis.

With its sappy family reunion fadeout and curiously ominous verbal epilogue, War of the Worlds limps into film history as one of the most eagerly awaited non-events of recent memory.

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