Spielberg: War Of The Worlds

Let me begin by saying that I’m not sure why I chose this movie to cover. With the retrospectives, I generally tend to keep to movies that are a bit more aged, and form a part of childhood or youth memories, however significant (or not) a part it may be. This gives me the luxury of imbuing the piece with a certain time and place contextual commentary, which I very much enjoy.

Spielberg’s take on HG Wells’ War of the Worlds doesn’t  fall into this category at all. It’s only six years old for a start.

The movie would also be stacked up against some very weighty and significant comparisons and benchmarks from previous adaptations that indeed ARE part of my childhood and much loved. HG Wells’ original book (which I read as a teenager), the Orson Wells radio play, the 50s movie adaptation and of course Jeff Wayne’s fabulous musical version from the 70s are well known and revered to me (well, maybe not so much the 50s movie, but you get my drift).

So what the hell am I doing here?

Well, I don’t really know, but I thought it would be fun (for a change) to do the retro thing on a movie that I’m not that wild about and have only seen (as of typing this line) once on its original theatrical run. It might be good, it might be bad, but let’s take a chance and I guess we’ll all find out together.

The idea of a modern CG era, big budget adaptation of WOTW is so obvious, and seemingly such a ‘shoe in’ idea, that I’m amazed it took until 2005 to appear on our screens. The fact that it was Steven Spielberg who’d eventually give it to us, also seemed like a perfect alignment of elements. A wondrous conjunction if you like. Here was the Close Encounters and E.T. guy giving us the flip-sided version of human contact with aliens. Surely a super interesting juxtaposition that couldn’t fail.

I must admit, despite a couple of reservations (more on that in a moment), I went to the theatre to see the film with extremely high hopes and great expectations that it would completely rock. How could it not? It was War of the Worlds for goodness sake, one of the greatest science fiction stories ever, and it was being brought to life by one of the greatest Science Fiction beards ever.

Awesome! Right?

Well, OK before anything else; let’s just mention those reservations:

Top of the list was (for me) the inclusion of Tom Thumb, yes the Cruisemeister himself. I have never really been a big fan of his, and the movies I do like (Jerry Maguire and Rain Man for example); tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. Very hit and miss, and mostly miss, I guess you could say. Add this to his increasingly weird public persona (the whole Oprah couch jumping incident was coincidentally while promoting the movie). Not to mention the unfathomable and mostly negative Scientology exposure he was also enduring, and his presence here really doesn’t click it for me. I am of course aware that this is entirely subjective, and therefore limited in relevance. Some folks love the dude.

That being said, I think it’s fair to say that whatever one’s personal gut feelings are for a movie star, they can have a tendency to colour things for the viewer, purely because they are a movie star. It’s built right in. These people come with tons of baggage y’know? They just do. This is why for certain types of movie, I’m a big fan of directors like Lucas who are consistently brave enough to cast talented unknowns in key roles, so the audience has no preconceptions. Just imagine for a moment that instead of unknown Christopher Reeve, Richard Donner had cast a huge movie star like Robert Redford or Steve McQueen in the role of Superman. Just rolling that idea around in my head is crazy, as it changes everything right?

Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t want a giant Hollywood mega star playing Joe ordinary in my WOTW, y’know? I want……well, Joe ordinary!

The second reservation was with the adaptation itself. I know this is definitely nothing but a Wells’ fan pipe dream, but I was kinda hoping it would be Steven Spielberg presents H.G. WelIs’ ‘The War Of The Worlds‘, and before you say “Ben, you idiot, that’s exactly what it was”, I mean a Victorian England setting with all the locations and characters from the book. I want the ‘Eve of War’ on Horsall Common, slowly unscrewing caps, and the valiant Thunderchild, the whole 9 yards.

Even if it were to be set in the present day, at least place the action in England, as in the book…..as I said, nothing but pipe dreams. Sigh – Hollywood money, so often means the wholesale USAification of source material, even when it is as revered as H.G. Wells’ book. So it is then that, the movie is present day and set in Jersey…….with Tom Cruise.

Ok moving on

So Cruise played (for our sins) everyman serial fuck-up father and dock crane operator Ray Ferrier. And joining him (if we don’t count the terrible buggerizationing [my own word] of the opening prologue by a certain Morgan Freeman doing his best not to sound like Red from Shawshank, and failing miserably), we have the like her or loath her Dakota Fanning as daughter Rachel. Fanning is (I should say ‘was’ as she’s pretty much grown up now), one of those child actors that polarises opinion (I think most do). She was undoubtedly talented and great to work with as she seemed to have had an old head on young shoulders. No doubt she was a director’s dream and took direction very well. This doesn’t necessarily mean the end result is always great though. Personally, I quite liked her performance, and it had some standout moments in the movie. However, I also understand those that feel they might have throttled the damn child after the umpteenth shrill scream.

Playing Cruise’s disaffected teenage son Robbie was newcomer Justin Chatwin who I think did the standout job in the whole movie. I liked Robbie, and thought Chatwin’s performance was subtle and underrated (Fanning got all the kudos). I also like the fact that they cast him even though he’s taller than the Cruisemeister (but then isn’t everyone?).

Bringing up the rear was the completely forgettable Miranda Otto as the responsible and moved on ex-wife of Ray and mother of Robbie and Rachel (lot’s of ‘R’ names in this movie). Her role kinda bookends the movie in a most annoyingly trite way. I might mention that later.

Oh I almost forgot, Spielberg pays homage to the 1950’s movie by wheeling out that film’s leads; Gene Barry and Ann Robinson (no not that one) to play the kid’s Grandparents, seen at the end of the movie. A nice touch, if completely lost on at least 90% or more of the film’s target audience.

Alright then let’s get down to business.

Watching the movie again was an interesting experience. With the luxury of six years having passed by, it seems obvious, and fair to say that the movie (although very successful financially) has not generated any real or lasting impression on movieland or the general public in the way that it’s de facto trilogy forebears (Close Encounters and E.T.) most certainly did. Maybe judging the movie by the standards of those movies is unfair in a way, I mean not everything the beard does has to be a world beater. Ok yes, I get that, but we’re not talking about The Color Purple, Always, or Empire Of The Sun are we? We are talking about War of the bleeding’ WORLDS here people, the stakes are higher and if Spielberg ever needed to muster up his absolute best magic dust, it’s with this movie.

In all honesty, I don’t think he managed it.

Ask yourself this question: Has Steven Spielberg given the world an adaptation of WOTW that has become ingrained, synonymous and inextricably linked with the title? Could you now rule out anyone ever trying to do another one? When you think of WOTW now, do you think of Spielberg’s movie?

If you are really hints about it, the answer to all three of those questions has to be ‘no’. Admittedly, we are talking about a very famous book that has seen many interpretations and adaptations over the 100+ years since it was published. But of all the myriad versions, there are indeed a few that have managed to become self important in their own right (and I mean that in a good way). Orson Wells’ radio version springs to mind immediately, others are still thrilled by the 1950’s movie (I’m not one of them mind you, but it is good fun, if overly compromised). For many people of my generation, Jeff Wayne’s Musical version also commands an exalted position. So much so for me, that I remember being almost annoyed that Spielberg’s movie didn’t use Richard Burton’s legendary prologue voiceover featured in that Musical. At the very least he could have got Anthony Hopkins to do it, but Morgan Freeman?! Honestly, If the man had slipped the name ‘Andy Dufresne’ into his voiceover, no-one would have even batted an eyelid. And as for the woeful CG animation over that whole prologue/montage, and the similar epilogue, ugh! Not good. Anyway, maybe I’m being harsh, but it would seem that if Spielberg couldn’t wrest the mantle of ‘definitive War of the Worlds‘ interpretation from any of those previously mentioned, then perhaps no-one can.

I’m going to talk about just a couple more things that I don’t like about the movie, before I start to cover one or two that I do.

Ok, Steven Spielberg seems to be forever repenting for his mismanagement of Roy Neary’s natural paternal duties and instincts in (Close Encounters), by having to have his ‘fuck-up’ father character in WOTW, go on a journey of self discovery and emerge as a responsible mentor and protector by the end of the movie. He just can’t resist it. Cruise goes from an irresponsible, errant and neglectful dick-head dad, to top hero banana via the journey to survive and get the kids to their mother in Boston. It’s such a cliched story device, and so very, very tired. Personally, I would have like to have seen Ray deal with the situation just as successfully while still remaining the perennial knob-jockey and having to deal with his own inherent selfishness every step of the way. Anyway, this does bring me to Miranda Otto – deep breath – OK, as mentioned earlier; Otto’s character (the kid’s mother Mary-Ann) has moved on with her life and is now with a new man, and pregnant with his baby. They are successful, smug, middle class and responsible. Ray (as we know) is blue collar, working class and completely self absorbed. So far so good. So, Mary-Ann drops the kids off for the weekend with Ray, while she and hubby #2 go to Boston to see her parents. Fine.

Then all hell breaks loose, and the aliens (not Martians remember) attack. Ray and the kids have a slight head start and get the hell out of dodge, and begin to fight their way towards Boston.

Then the whole movie happens (and I’m well aware that I’ve just packaged up the real meat and potatoes of the movie in five words), until finally….

Ray gets to Boston, and delivers Rachel to Mary-Ann (Robbie having made his own way there after somewhat inexplicably cutting loose earlier in the movie). By this time, the Aliens have all but perished in the most famous of Dues Ex Machina devices in Sci-Fi history. What annoys the hell out of me, is that Ray has gone through this absolute shit-storm, only to find Mary-Ann and her parents nicely tucked up in their Boston town house safe and sound, presumably having missed the party completely. It really doesn’t play very well, having them all look so well heeled and unaffected by the chaos. I mean, we have to assume the tripods/war machines made it this far as the street is well rubbled up, buggered cars etc. so would it have hurt to put a bit of dust and grub on Mary-Ann and the Grampys? Just so it looks like they’ve had an ordeal too? I mean, that is the point of the movie isn’t it? That the story we focus on, is not a pivotal one. Merely one of many individual stories that end in either death or survival, but are otherwise meaningless and inconsequential to the greater narrative i.e. the invasion itself. This was part of the power and originality of H.G. Wells’ book. I really hate the way Ray stands there so dishevelled and exhausted, and they come out of their nice wealthy urban town house all squeaky clean, like they’ve all just showered and the fresh coffee and bagels are on the table.

Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long about that little bit, but you know when something just grates?!

Oops almost forgot – I didn’t like the alien design at all. These things should have been proper frightening. Giving them great big round eyes, just destroys any chance of them being the least bit scary. Just imagine, if what came into that farmhouse basement to look for Ray and Rachel looked like H.R. Giger’s Alien, then you’d be freakin’ scared boy, right? Am I right? I know the threat (of discovery) is by this point well known, but I’m sure there was no memo to the design department that said “Uh yeah boys, Steven wants the aliens to be ever so slightly cute, err can you manage that?” – so they should have gone hog wild and made the things full on ‘mess your day up’ bad ass. It would have been so much better.

Oh, just before I move on from this rather negative (but honest and heartfelt) section, let’s talk about the tripods being buried under the ground for thousands of years. Oh Lordy.

This is a classic ‘Spielberg’ thing i.e. deciding that he really doesn’t want to have to show Alien ships landing/crashing to earth like so many other movies have done before, so he concocts a way of not having to do it at all by bringing the war machines up from underground. This kind of decision is one of those Spielbergisms that seem almost from the hip, and defies logic, and science, and even has a good go at ballsing up the denouement of the entire film. I know, I know, It doesn’t pay to examine the internal logic of movies, as they are always found lacking. But would anyone really have been bothered if he’d just had the damn things come down from space? I wouldn’t.

So we’ve dealt with the bits I’m not that thrilled about, and it turns out there are quite a few (and i didn’t even talk about Tim Robbins or the complete lack of a ‘Heat Ray’).

OK, so as we all should know by now, War Of The Worlds is the story of an alien attack on humankind and how one man (in this case, Ray Ferrier and his two kids) deal with the situation. H.G. Wells’ classic provides a very interesting and unique look at something like this. Our main protagonist is a character that has absolutely no bearing or involvement with the ‘War’ in question or its outcome. The story is of survival amidst the chaos, and he’s primarily on the run the whole time. He’s not a fighter, he’s not a scientist, he’s just a father trying to get his kids away from the madness and death the aliens are bringing. This I like. Spielberg says he didn’t want to overly reflect too many elements of the events of 9/11, but it seems obvious that there is much in there that is directly influenced by it. Spielberg shows both the best and worst of human behaviour when under extreme stress. Even Robbie’s decision to leave his family unit (such as it is) in the midst of their plight, and join the fight is hugely symbolic (although not defined that well in the movie, meaning some viewers didn’t understand what Robbie was doing).

There are also some startling images that worked really well. The bodies floating down the river was powerful. The train hurtling by ablaze was intense, and while i miss the ‘Heat Ray’ of the original, I do think the desiccation effect they employed instead was quite effective, particularly with all the dust and clothes flying about (another 9/11 reference surely).

I think the design of the war machines is also pretty good, although perhaps a bit too much like giant sea critters. They were certainly realised on-screen well.

I also seem to be the only person in the universe who liked the Tim Robbins character. In the book, this character is a preacher who won’t shut the hell up, and is dealt with. Here, we have what I think is quite a powerful and effective scene, when Ray makes the decision that Ogilvy (Robbins) has to die lest he give their position away to the aliens, especially as Ray has his ten year old daughter to think about. He blindfolds her, closes the door and does the deed. It’s powerful because Ray is not a trained killer, he’s no soldier. Killing another man in cold blood is not something he ever thought he would have to do. I think they could have played that scene for even more than they did, but even as shot it’s grim. The conceit of course is that the aliens would spend quite so long searching and re-searching one sodding farmhouse instead of just razing it to the ground.

So the other thing that amazingly, people seem to balk at and criticise, even though it’s built right into the fabric of the original book, is the aforementioned Deus Ex Machina. In the case of WOTW of course, we all know that what eventually conquers the aliens, is not the military, or science, but the bugs and germs prevalent on our planet that the aliens have no immunity to. They just start dying of their own accord, and the invasion (for now at least) is over. I’ve never had a problem with this aspect of the story, and while it undoubtedly falls under the category, I think as Deus Ex Machina devices go, this one’s a good’un, and is clever and plausible.

It is unfortunate that my revisiting of this movie was on a Blu-Ray transfer so bad, I couldn’t actually believe what I was seeing. I was rather looking forward to a proper Hi-Def experience, which would surely have stood the movie in its best possible stead for this retrospective. It was not to be, and I’m a bit bummed that I actually went and bought this Blu, ‘cos it’s bad – sheesh! really bad.

However, despite the fact that looking at my block of text on the ‘bad’ side of the ledger, and seeing how it is significantly larger than my block of text on the ‘good’ side of the ledger; I actually enjoyed the movie (shitty picture aside) more than it maybe seems like I did. No, I don’t think it’s destined to ever be regarded as a defining statement in H.G. Wells adaptations, and certainly not in Spielberg’s exalted port folio, but perhaps I should cut the beard a little slack here and there, and admire the bits that work well and forget the bits that don’t (Mr. Freeman).

I have to say, that I would so love to see that proper 19th century England set movie adaptation someday though, perhaps if Peter Jackson isn’t too busy…….

Ben Pegley

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