Friday, November 11, 2005

Film Review - War of the Worlds

The celebrated author H.G. Wells was one of humanity’s most gifted visionaries, long before his time. Not only was he successful in launching a entirely new genre in science fiction writing with the development of the alien invasion premise, he also brought to the forefront the frightening prospect of war and its impact on society as a whole. Though a majority of his works can and should be treated as nothing more then pure imaginative storytelling, Wells included in a few of his writings social commentaries about modern society that are worth mentioning. The Time Machine, for example, centered on the whimsical concept of traveling through time but also highlighted the significance of education and reading in maintaining the basic cultural structure of civilization. In turn, War of the Worlds was a commentary on two primary fronts – it promoted the ideal of humanity uniting together against a common enemy and the belief that disease could play a pivotal role in war, both of which proved themselves to be preludes to the emergence of World War I in Europe. Now as free world faces the onslaught of terrorism, a frightening reality which continues to loom large in light of the recent terrorist attacks in London, the message of mankind uniting against a common adversary, a common evil, is an ideal that is more warranted now then ever before.

The story for War of the Worlds, albeit an exhilarating and emotionally draining experience to witness, particularly if you happen to have weak constitution for the sight of human beings being incinerated alive, does not pack quite the punch it would have several years ago. Steven Spielberg is at his directing best with War of the Worlds, doubtlessly his most graphic pictorial since his 1998 epic war drama Saving Private Ryan, and Cruise brings honest emotional integrity to the family story arch of the film. Adversely, with audiences having already experienced Independence Day and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, both of whose stories were inspired directly by the H.G. Wells novella, the basic alien invasion plotline grows exhausted and vapid rather quickly, more so then we would expect from a Spielberg picture. This of course is no fault of either Spielberg or Cruise but perhaps Worlds was not quite the follow-up project they had in mind, or at least audiences did, particularly for the creative duo behind the brilliantly orchestrated Minority Report.

Unquestionably Tom Cruise falls just a tad short of the intensely passionate roller coaster performance present within Minority Report, his last collaboration with acclaimed director Steven Spielberg, but nonetheless he appears to be in top form in the role of Ray Ferrier, an immature playboy faced with the onslaught of a devastating alien invasion who must come to grips with his role as a parent and protector of his two children as they make their way to Boston, Massachusetts to reunite with their loved ones. Thrown head first into the position as the lone parental figure for his understandably frightened and juvenile children against his will, Cruise affectionately demonstrates the tremendous difficulty Ray has coming to grips with his long overdue responsibilities and how quickly he must change mentally and emotionally to protect his children, doing whatever is necessary, even if it means sacrificing his own moral fiber, to ensure his children’s survival through this ordeal. Cruise’s impacting performance is what makes War of the Worlds as emotionally poignant as it is and thanks to Dakota Fanning this fermentation is made even more believable. Dakota Fanning’s Rachel Ferrier brings the right level of emotional intensity required for Ray Ferrier to make the incredible transformation from a juvenile playboy to the mature and self-sacrificing parental figure he appears as in the end of the film, though to be fair Miss Fanning’s overly intelligent persona in the film can be a bit too much at times to accept her as an average girl living through a devastating event such as this but we’ll forgive this oversight in the long run. There exists however a complication involving Justin Chatwin’s character, Robbie Ferrier, the smart-alecky and rebellious, though certainly more mature at times, son of Tom Cruise’s character. The difficulty lies not with Chatwin’s performance. On the contrary, he works perfectly well in the role. Rather the problem exists with the resolution of the character. With no explanation as to how Robbie survived the alien attack when it appeared unmistakably to have led to his death, his appearance at the very end of the film ruins in a way the emotional impact of the reunion between Ray, his ex-wife and Rachael. It feels so out of the blue and unexplained that it vastly overshadows the audience’s perception of the picture’s finale, thus diluting the message Spielberg is trying to express.

Overall, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s second collaborative effort War of the Worlds lamentably falls short of expectations especially on par with the creative majesty of Minority Report, though undoubtedly this does not come as a surprise to many. Nonetheless, the originative and visually stunning first half saves the film from whatever shortcomings its weaker second half, particularly its conclusion, may deliver. Rhetoric stemming from the left side of the political spectrum would dictate that the symbolism presented in Steven Spielberg’s big screen adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novella relates to the American ‘imperialism’ demonstrated in Iraq when in reality it relates to its audience the evils of terrorism and the emotional horror its devastation can invoke in the human psyche. Conservative advocacy groups for years have derided Hollywood for placing clearly partisan messages in their feature films but for the left to extract the idea that War of the Worlds, a story developed years before World War I even broke out, is a commentary on the ‘evils’ of the Bush Administration is a bit of a stretch, which is putting it politely.

There are overtly distinctive parallels made between the alien invasion/attempted extermination of the entire human race and the aftermath following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States, most notably the scene in which survivors pass a wall covered with pictures of missing loved ones, and the recent terrorist bombings in London, England. However poignant or familiarly and emotionally entrancing this may seem for some, this unfortunately is where Spielberg goes the most wrong in his direction of War of the Worlds. If anyone has even the slightest memory of the moments after the nation fell under attack in September 2001, in spite of the period of shock and horror at the sight of the Twin Towers collapsing and survivors fleeing the clouds of debris in the streets there existed no state of panic or anarchy as some may have predicted, including the terrorist masterminds behind this devious plot. Unlike Spielberg’s conceptualization of a rapacious and hysterical populous shown on the big screen, Americans did not riot, lute, or cause an uprising in the days that followed. This can also be proudly said of the British as well in the aftermath of the blitz bombings. In reality Americans would not have acted as outrageously as Spielberg demonstrates, though undoubtedly they would neither have acted as collectively as they appeared following the attacks of September 11th or the blackout in New York City. In War of the Worlds, they are treated so repugnantly it is as if they were the walking dead straight out of a George A. Romero zombie feature, which ironically could easily be playing a few theatres down from the Steven Spielberg picture. The point of Ray’s family surviving through a terrifying ordeal such as the attempted annihilation of the human race comes in loud and clear but he crosses the line in this instance. This does not however act as a total blemish on the film’s pristine status but rather more as a sticking point which needs simply to be addressed.

Yet another problem existent with the storyline is that in spite of its clear ability to remain in tune with the works of the science-fiction author H.G. Wells it does not present many opportunities in which audiences not knowledgeable of the source material can understand key elements of the alien invasion plotline. Why were humans following the initial attacks by the Martian invaders captured instead of being incinerated as before? What was the deal with the red vein-like objects left behind by the alien machines? Nothing is expressed onscreen that would clue audiences into their significance to the plot or what they are precisely. In spite of a few clear missteps, particularly in the latter half of the science-fiction action drama, War of the Worlds maintains its distinctive Spielberg style which has made his films so successful and enduring over the decades and bolsters an astonishing set of five-hundred special effects shots which alone are worth the price of admission.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A)