War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (2005)

They say the best science fiction is only limited by the imagination.Hard S/F writers tend to elide the human element, focusing instead on the brutal objectivity of man’s cosmic inconsequence.Populists like Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, have tried to envision a peaceful meeting between extra-terrestrials and mankind. So it is almost with an air of apology that Spielberg has now adapted H.G. Wells’ classic novel War of the Worlds, wherein a sleepy America awakes to find it’s been tagged for hostile takeover by immensely powerful beings from another planet.

Faced with the difficult task of exploring the limits of human-alien contact in a plausible manner, alien invasion movies like Signs and Independence Day often resort to hokey Americana when they run out of credibility. Whatever else one can say about this new adaptation, Spielberg at least gets the “war” part right, even if the “out of this world” part at times seem out of his reach. For this apocalyptic battle, he pulls out all the stops, committing to celluloid one of the most gripping and suspenseful movies in a career that has already seen its share of memorable suspense scenes.

Like Signs, War of the Worlds centers on a single father struggling to keep his family together under mounting duress. Tom Cruise plays Ray Farrier, an everyday-Joe kind of guy who works the New York container docks, and whose idea of interplanetary war is defined by seeing his teenage son don a Red Sox baseball cap to match his own Yankees cap.He doesn’t eat health food, can’t keep a girlfriend, and is everybody’s best friend in the neighborhood.It’s not convincing in the least, but it doesn’t have to be.Before long, the sky clouds over in a lightning storm that will far outrank his deadbeat-dad shortcomings in terms of daughter Dakota Fanning’s future trauma.

What follows is quite simply some of the best filmmaking Spielberg has undertaken in two decades. Massive tripodal alien ships that “ride the lightning” burst forth from the urban city-level, and wipe that self-loving bad-boy grin off Cruise’s face in no time.Spielberg’s camera is always exactly where it needs to be as the cement splits open or buildings topple; it’s tough to imagine the inevitable War of the Worlds-Six Flags ride having anywhere near as much visceral energy as these initial invasion scenes.The CGI is inventively used, and Spielberg opts for some disturbing widescreen long shots that convey the helplessness of the situation. Nowhere is this felt more instinctively than in the film’s most harrowing sequence, when Ray’s minivan—the only working automobile around for miles—is mobbed by a bloodthirsty group of survivors.

If there’s cause for concern at all, it’s that, unlike the summer’s other invasion film, Land of the Dead, Spielberg and Cruise are hell-bent for teaching the audience something.Spielberg’s life lessons still come swaddled in humanist concern: 9/11 references pop up everywhere, most disturbingly in Ray’s returning home covered in the dust of vaporized humans.As for Cruise, the fact that the aliens had been planning this attack for billions of years indicates a script re-write on his part to make this his Battlefield Earth. Whether or not Cruise is gearing up for that battle remains to be seen.As for this one, it’s spectacle filmmaking of the highest order.

Jesse Paddock

image