Meanwhile, Mars Attacks
I'm not sure we need another version of The War of the Worlds. As a story, it has already achieved much from its humble beginnings in 1898 as an H.G. Wells novel. It became a notorious radio play in 1938, its initial broadcast now famous for fooling some of the public into panicking. In 1953, it was given the movie treatment, and its special effects were lauded for being ahead of its time. Now, in 2005, we get three -- yes, count 'em, three -- new movie versions. One could say the story's bid for timelessness is going quite well.
Of the three being released this year, two of them are going straight-to-video, and one is getting a major summer theater run. That would be the version by Steven Spielberg, who omits the first "The" in the title of his would-be blockbuster, War of the Worlds, and has decided to use it to unleash his dark side. No more E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style friendly aliens here -- this time the first thing the extra-terrestrials do upon arrival on earth is vaporize all the people in sight. There's a certain evil glee in Spielberg's depiction of this hysterical chaos; it's like that feeling a good kid might get when he's finally allowed to be bad for once.
Had Spielberg fully embraced this tone from top to bottom, this movie might have been a chilling suspense thriller triumph. Unfortunately, it's undermined by a lack of focus on its subject and the director's own habit of erring on the side of caution, thus holding back on his audience. When one decides to do another version of The War of the Worlds, one should consider having a clear vision for it that justifies its place among the many well-done already existing versions. Here, the alien (normally, they're Martians, but I think this movie may not make a clear distinction) invasion scenario/metaphor could have a lot of potential in our post-9/11, present-Iraqi War world. Indeed, at times, the film does seem to be criticizing America's knee-jerk panic-and-retaliate reactions in its heightened awareness of terrorist attacks.
Sadly, most of this driving action takes a back seat to the concerns of one family, that of Ray (Tom Cruise) and his children Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning). The destruction of the earth, breathtakingly displayed on the screen, seems relegated to the role of backdrop during the emotional moments, which are all related to broken-family issues. We've got a divorced dad whose wife is remarried and whose two kids prefer to spend their time with her than with him. He's not much of a father, apparently, but his paternal instincts come to the fore during this horrific event as he forcibly fights for the survival of his offspring. The question is: did we need an alien invasion to illustrate this theme? Why not an earthquake, or a tsunami? Why not zombies or dinosaurs?
More specifically, why use The War of the Worlds for this instead of actually telling The War of the Worlds's story? Spielberg doesn't seem to know that M. Night Shyamalan already did the family-centered version of the story and did it better with Signs, claustrophobically localizing the family's struggles by limiting the information they -- and the viewing audience -- received. Spielberg's movie also wants to be about the survival of a family, but it wants to be about the spectacle of the war at the same time. It's not a bad idea, but it feels incongruous, and that lack of seamlessness is exacerbated by various moments of illogic and, to put it bluntly, annoying character behavior (in particular, the actions of Robbie really grate against one's nonsense detector).
War of the Worlds can be enjoyed, however, on a raw technical level. The effects and visuals work here is astounding. Spielberg's usual team of pros (including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, and, of course, Industrial Light and Magic) can always be counted on for beautiful, professional work. And the director himself puts together some suspense scenarios that Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of. In fact, it seems like most of the care and consideration in the movie went to the choreography of the suspense and action set pieces; they're quite gratifying and worth experiencing, but that makes the family drama stuff feel even weaker in comparison.
To sum up: the good parts in War of the Worlds are really good and the bad parts are really bad. There's almost no in-between, although I'd say there's more good than bad. The worst of it, however, involves the ending, and I'm not talking about the ending that came from H.G. Wells (which I'm happy they retained, although, with a focus less on mankind's fruitless defense vs. the Martians, the conclusion loses some poetic weight). No, this movie's awkward finish comes more from that family drama side. Staged in such an unbelievable manner, it doesn't seem real. And this is where Spielberg further reveals his conscious reluctance to disturb his audience. The inherently good kid who gets to be bad will still want to make good. Which is, in this case, too bad.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures; rated "PG-13" for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and distrubing images.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.