Dir. Steven Spielberg, US, 2005, 116 mins
Review by Jarrod Walker
The concept of mankind falling prey to an invading dominant alien species is one that seems to massage the film-going public’s paranoia in a highly profitable way. Whether we’re talking Independence Day or the TV series V (which Independence Day plagiarized outright), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing or even the Alien films, all alien invasion films unavoidably riff on the one original story that spawned them: H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
A member of the socialist Fabian society in London, H.G Wells’ writing allowed him to espouse his left wing ideals on the state of contemporary society and politics within the confines of a fantasy adventure story. Wells’ was inspired to write The War of the Worlds, ostensibly a damning of British Colonialism, after a conversation with his brother, regarding the 8,000 Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania who were decimated after the arrival of English settlers in Australia. Wells’ idea for The War of the Worlds sprang from the thought of what might happen if such an indifferent and technologically superior race was to land in England and exterminate the populous with such unsympathetic determination.
Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween radio play of The War of the Worlds was a stateside tailoring of the quintessentially English story (setting the alien landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey) and hit the raw nerve of pre-WWII paranoia that was latent in the hearts of the American public. It went on to cause widespread panic and mass evacuations.
George Pal’s 1958 version of The War of the Worlds tapped into the ‘them and us’ cold-war paranoia that was creeping across the globe. 46 years later and uber-auteur Steven Spielberg is exploiting post-9/11 tensions in his own interpretation of the story: 2005’s War of the Worlds. The U.S invasion epicenter is (once again) New Jersey but Spielberg has firmly shifted the focus from alien craft battling the military to a more personal and intimate story of a single family’s plight within the chaos.
The film opens with Ray Ferrier (Cruise) a crane operator at the local dockyards who’s late picking up his young daughter Rachel (Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Chatwin) from ex-wife Mary-Anne (Otto) for a rare weekend stay with their Dad. This further widens the already huge gap between ‘dead-beat Dad’ Ray and his kids, who think their father is an irresponsible loser who only cares about himself. After a ferocious lightening storm strikes in the town centre, the inhabitants worst nightmares are realized as huge ‘Tripods’ – alien walkers – ascend from deep underground and begin to systematically destroy every living thing in their path. A terrified and dumbstruck Ray loads his kids into the only working truck he can steal and they hurriedly evacuate as the Tripods advance, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Thinking that he’s not up to the task of looking after his kids in a crisis, Ray heads for Boston in order to drop off his kids with someone infinitely more responsible than he is, his ex-wife. But in the ordeal that awaits Ray, he begins to find a semblance of the fatherhood that he’s lost and therefore some kind of redemption; to become the sort of father he should have been all along.
There are some great performances here; most noteworthy is Fanning, who is extraordinarily naturalistic as Rachel, particularly in her opening scenes with Cruise. Cruise is always willing to take risks in his roles and in the kinds of films he appears in (which is something he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for) and he’s always up for portraying less-than-likeable characters, yet somehow he always allows an audience to connect. This has been most obvious in roles like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (the misogynistic Frank TJ Mackey was a role that could well have backfired) and in Michael Mann’s Collateral as the sociopath killer Vincent. Here, as the deeply flawed, not-so-great father Ray Ferrier, Cruise is in top form and he’s great.
Typically for Spielberg, family is the primary theme here yet the films undeniable attractions are its set pieces. There is no other filmmaker alive today who can pull off an action set piece as well as Spielberg and once the film’s spectacle kicks into high gear, it is jaw dropping. In keeping with the disturbing and dark tone, the destruction comes thick and fast and there are many sequences that stick in the mind such as a particularly harrowing sequence featuring a Tripod attacking a car ferry laden with hundreds of survivors, and a surreal sequence featuring captured survivors and their ultimate use for the alien invaders. Longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski’s Cinematography in these sequences is surprisingly similar to the style he employed with Saving Private Ryan, shooting handheld, gritty and low, making the audience feel like eyewitnesses rather than mere observers. For the most part, everything is shot from the perspective of Ray and his family, if they don’t see it, we don’t see it. This almost-documentary style works particularly well during the first Tripod attack scene as people are disintegrated and turned to ash as they run in terror; their ashen remains and shredded clothing billow in the wind and settle on the survivors who run behind them. This is a particularly visceral sequence amplified all the more by the familiar 9/11 images of ghost-people covered with ash.
Although the story’s similarity to H.G Wells’ original is tenuous, there are major plot parallels and all in all, it’s an admirable update. The tone (and denouement) of the book remains intact, as do the formidable images of the Tripods and the Red Weed. It’s also worth noting that this film took seven months to complete, from cameras first rolling in 2004 to the release in theatres for summer 2005; a stunning achievement for any filmmaker but given that this was the biggest budget Spielberg’s worked with to date it’s no mean feat.
Despite the hype (and the Katie/Tom overkill) War of the Worlds shows that Spielberg can still roll this kind of accomplished entertainment out of his sleeves in a matter of months, at a time when many of his contemporaries (Revenge of the Sith anyone?) can barely manage a passable intelligent summer blockbuster. War of the Worlds is a visually stunning, disturbing and visceral piece of work and it’s a fitting addition to the finer films in Spielberg’s oeuvre.