Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy
Screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells
I think the best way that Steven Spielberg’s version of WAR OF THE WORLDS can be described is in the words of my wife Patricia, who about an hour into the movie leaned over and whispered in my ear; “This ain’t no war.”and she’s right. I think if you go to see a movie called WAR OF THE WORLDS then you have a right to expect a war between worlds and we don’t get it in this movie. Now, it is faithful in its way to both the 1953 version starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson as well as the original H.G. Wells novel but it’s not faithful to what we expect in a big summer blockbuster science fiction action adventure directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise. In fact, it’s a letdown in a lot of ways.
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a happy-go-lucky guy. When we first see him, he blows off his boss who is practically begging Ray to take overtime and then we see that Ray is late to meet his ex-wife and her new husband so that Ray can take charge of his children for the weekend. Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is a precocious child with wisdom and a vocabulary far beyond her age while Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is our typical rebellious teen who has issues with his father because Dad wasn’t there to wipe his nose every time he had a cold. This dysfunctional family unit has their weekend together ruined when a series of bizarre lightning strikes break out all over the world, including their New Jersey backyard. The lightning strikes act as EMP pulses, knocking out all electrical devices, including radios, TVs, cell phones and radio in the immediate area.
Ray goes with his neighbors to check out a lightning strike right in their neighborhood and a huge metal creature comes up out of the ground and starts blasting everything in sight with lethal death rays that instantly turn humans into dust. Ray gathers up his kids and flees from his home, intending to take them to Boston where his wife is with her new husband and the grandparents. While they’re dodging the deadly tripods, Ray and his kids fight, bicker and work through their family dysfunction issues. The journey is a harrowing one as Ray and his kids see first hand for themselves the horror the Martian invaders are capable of. Ray himself has to make some hard choices and do some growing up as a man and a father as he struggles to get his children and himself from New Jersey to Boston while surviving the alien invasion.
Okay, you’re saying that this sounds like a pretty good movie and in fact it is a pretty good movie on a lot of levels. The Martian Tripods are some pretty scary suckers if you ask me. These are The Martian Tripods I envisioned when I first read the book many, many, many moons ago as a youth and the design of them is wonderful. The scenes of mass panic are truly terrifying, especially during a scene where Ray and his children are attacked by a fear-crazed mob who want to steal their van and in a later scene where a Martian Tripod attacks a boat Ray and his children are on along with hundreds of other refugees trying to escape. There are some great visuals of The Martian Tripods doing their thing, vaporizing humans, destroying buildings and just generally going about the business of conquering Earth. And Steven Spielberg again shows us that he is capable of some truly haunting images such as the one where Ray and his children flee through a forest while the rags and dust of vaporized humans are floating like snow down on them and a shocking scene of a train with all the cars on fire roaring through a station like an express going to Hell.
But there’s a lot about WAR OF THE WORLDS that just doesn’t turn my crank. For a Steven Spielberg movie it’s not really all that exciting or thrilling or suspenseful. And this is the guy who directed the “Indiana Jones” trilogy and “Jaws”, remember. I never worried about the characters because they never came alive for me. I’m looking at Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning acting and I was conscious of them being actors playing a role all throughout the movie. And since they were virtually the only characters in the movie, I hardly figured that Spielberg would kill them off. Tim Robbins shows up halfway through the movie as a survivalist hiding in his basement. He’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, though and the Tom Cruise character has to make a difficult choice and follow through on it when his daughter’s life is in jeopardy due to the Tim Robbins’ character’s madness. I thought it was an effective scene but one oddly lacking any real suspense or tension.
And I guess that’s my main problem with WAR OF THE WORLDS. While I applaud Spielberg and Cruise for wanting to make an alien invasion movie told from the viewpoint of ordinary working class folk as opposed to hotshot scientific genius adventurers or go-for-broke-give-‘em-hell super soldiers it doesn’t make for exciting watching as the characters do nothing but run and hide for the whole movie. In this post 9/11 era can an American movie watching audience be satisfied with watching foreign invaders overrun our country while Americans cower in basements? Bad as “Independence Day” was (and it’s nothing but an unaccredited remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS itself) it at least had to good sense to have its large cast of characters determined to kick a lot of alien ass before they took a dirt nap.
And perhaps the biggest mistake that Spielberg made was keeping the original ending of H.G. Wells’ novel. It’s kinda hard to believe that aliens who demonstrate the level of advanced technology demonstrated in this movie would be unaware of the possible dangers of exposing themselves to our viruses, germs and microorganisms. If Spielberg was going to keep the original ending then he would have done better to have set the movie in the original time period when H.G. Wells wrote it (the 1890’s, right?) or even the 1950’s. As it stands, it’s kinda silly that aliens who have been planning this invasion for ‘millions of years’ (direct quote from the opening narration by the wonderful voice of Morgan Freeman) are taken out in 48 hours by the common cold. I mean, how intelligent can they really be? And just why did the aliens wait ‘millions of years’ before invading Earth? If they were around that long, wouldn’t it have been simpler to have just colonized our planet back then?
It also doesn’t help that there’s no real sense that the Martian Tripods are actually taking over the world. It seems as if they’re blasting hell out of New Jersey and that’s it. Except for one painfully brief scene where Tom Cruise encounters a news van and the crew shows him footage of The Tripods in other countries, that’s it. I wanted to see The Martian Tripods blasting The Pyramids, The Great Wall of China, The Eiffel Tower and burning down the mollyfoggin’ Amazon rain forest and we don’t get that here.
So should you see WAR OF THE WORLDS? I’d advise you guys to skip it unless you’re a confirmed diehard Tom Cruise and/or Steven Spielberg fan. It’s not that it’s a bad movie. It’s got wonderful special effects and the acting is professional and sharp. But as a movie, it’s just not engaging and to be brutally honest, not that interesting. I never got lost in the story or the characters and worst of all, I actually looked at the clock a couple of times during the movie to see how long I had to go until the end. If you want a much better Cruise/Spielberg collaboration, go Netflix “Minority Report” and leave WAR OF THE WORLDS alone
Rated PG-13 and I believe they stretched it at that. This may be the most PC alien invasion you’ll ever see.