Sunday, July 17, 2005

"War of the Worlds": the review

Earlier today, I went out and saw "War of the Worlds," starring Katie Holmes's intrepid, inspired fiancé, Tom Cruise. While I didn't find the movie great, it had its moments-- perhaps the best one being where Cruise almost gets eaten by a gigantic alien anus.

Spielberg's "War" is faithful to HG Wells's book in many respects, but while the movie featured plenty of mechanical tentacles, Spielberg's aliens weren't anything like the mean, klutzy octopi that emerged from their attack vehicles in Wells's 1898 vision:

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth--above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

Suddenly the monster vanished. It had toppled over the brim of the cylinder and fallen into the pit, with a thud like the fall of a great mass of leather. I heard it give a peculiar thick cry, and forthwith another of these creatures appeared darkly in the deep shadow of the aperture.

I turned and, running madly, made for the first group of trees, perhaps a hundred yards away; but I ran slantingly and stumbling, for I could not avert my face from these things.

Quite a few critics complained about two major problems with Spielberg's film: first, the aliens don't seem to have a reason to be here. Second, Spielberg's alien tripods-- based on HG Wells's 1898 version of George Lucas's Imperial walkers-- seem far too retro to be plausible as attack vehicles.

In defense of the film I'd argue that the aliens' purpose was self-evident: they were "terraforming" our world. A brief, horrifying moment of this was shown as Cruise peeked out the window of crazy-loon Tim Robbins's basement: tripods stalking the earth repeatedly slammed their tentacles into the ground-- chuk chuk chuk chuk chuk chuk chuk-- seeding it with the red weed intended to cover the planet's land area, then spraying human blood over the entire mess to help the weeds grow.

My response to the second critique is: relax. Yeah, the tripods were retro, but if it's true that the aliens sank those things into the ground thousands or even millions of years ago, then even by the aliens' standards they'd be pretty out of date.

But the second complaint has merit on a different level: we citizens of the 21st century expect our alien attacks to correspond to our 21st-century expectations of Hollywood special effects. If Spielberg was trying to evoke Wells's novel with those tripods, he should have gone further and set the action back in 1898 England. Why not give Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning (who plays Cruise's plucky, screamy daughter in the film) the opportunity to speak in an English accent? (I can hear my Brit readers cupping their hands over their balls and groaning in agony at the thought.)

I have a few complaints of my own. One is the standard geekish grievance: if the aliens were intent on extermination and had mapped out our population centers, you'd think they'd have thought of a more efficient way to eliminate us than by using stilt-legged tripods armed with precision weaponry. What a waste of time and energy, zapping us person by person!

Were I the alien general in charge of the initial phase of human extermination (and for all you know, I am he), I'd have done what humans are already capable of doing: floated a few nukes (or the alien equivalent) over the earth's major population centers, flattened global civilization with thousands of titanic airbursts, then swept in with wave after wave of aircraft to carpet-bomb and otherwise eliminate the remaining human populace-- most of whom would be following major roadways in long refugee lines, and therefore easy pickings for alien pilots. Alien neutron bombs would preserve needed structures, and after the initial two phases of the invasion, there'd still be enough humans left over for conversion to blood-spray to feed that red alien artery-weed.

I wasn't upset by the fact that humans were largely helpless against the alien attack. This was a story of running and survival, somewhat along the lines of Spielberg's 1993 "Jurassic Park." It did start to get annoying that Tom Cruise just happened to dodge those alien death rays at just the right moment, and just happened to survive the attack of the alien anus, a bit like the servant in the book of Job who was always there to give a breathless account of the latest Satan-wrought disaster on Job's family and property: "...and I alone escaped to tell thee."

Speaking of Satan, I immensely enjoyed the concept of alien pilots plunging to earth in a rain of lightning bolts:

I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. (Luke 10:18)

...and yet the geek in me had to wonder how it is that humanity's city builders never noticed these enormous machines, which didn't appear to have been buried that deeply beneath the ground.

Like other critics, I also wonder about the cameraman who, in that one early scene, was able to use his handheld camera to film the alien attack even after the electromagnetic pulse had nullified all other electronic items.

Spielberg also seemed to be making not-so-subtle references to his previous films. Much of the movie is a film student's dream: find the reference to "Jurassic Park" (the camera-tentacle that menaces the protags much as the velociraptors did)! Find the reference to "E.T." (running motif: aliens and children)! Find the reference to "Jaws" (look for waterborne peril in the ferry scene)! Find the reference to "Minority Report" (Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise! TOM CRUISE, damn your balls!). Find the reference to "Schindler's List" (caged, frightened people)! Find the reference to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (narrowly escaping peril after peril-- watch the Cruiser leap and dodge)! And the common thread in almost all these films?

The happy Spielbergian ending!

Good God, my eyes! They bleed! Ululate with me now!

One reason why I can't bring myself to like "War of the Worlds" more is that Spielberg, damn him, is back to pulling punches-- a trait that ruined the otherwise interesting "A.I." Perhaps Spielberg's finished exploring his dark side. Unfortunately, it works against him here as the family drama, which is the movie's major subplot, comes to a treacly conclusion. I had no problem with the aliens' defeat at the hands (flagella?) of our microbes; this is, after all, how HG Wells scripted it in the late 19th century. But the father-son reunion at the end of the movie left me cold. 1996's "Independence Day," for all its jingoistic corniness, did a better job with Will Smith's triumphant "Didn't I promise you fireworks?" to the little boy who might become his stepson.

Spielberg gets points for keeping the suspense ratcheted up; he's a good one for atmospherics. And unlike George Lucas, Spielberg is, thank God, an actor's director, coaxing good performances out of everyone. I differ from other critics in my estimation of Tim Robbins's turn as the unhinged Ogilvy (a character also found in the Wells novel): I thought Robbins played the character just fine.

Perhaps I should end this meditation with a few remarks about Tom Cruise, Scientology, and Cruise's public meltdowns, but I won't. I can separate Cruise the actor/performer from Cruise the nutball. He turned in a decent performance in Spielberg's movie, and as far as the movie goes, that's all that counts.

If I were to rate the movie, however, I doubt I could give it more than a 6 out of 10. Despite the tension, there was little doubt that Cruise and Company would survive to the end; and that sappy family reunion-- in front of what appeared to be an undamaged house in a largely undamaged neighborhood-- didn't have any impact. I have to wonder what a different director might have done with this movie. I'd be especially curious to see what the likes of James Cameron would have done with it. That's a man familiar with huge soundstages, futuristic robots, high-quality CGI, and nasty aliens.

See "War of the Worlds" at your own risk. You'll be entertained by the visuals, but you might find the story lacking. My Korean companions gave it a thumbs-sideways, and I'd have to agree.


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