Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Review: War of the Worlds
If carnage is an art form, then War of the Worlds is a masterpiece. Last night, I went out to watch Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' groundbreaking 1898 novel. War of the worlds is stuffed full of glorious wreckage. A church is split in half. Cars spin through the air. Humans are vaporized, and their pants float eerily to the ground. DC-10s tumble from the sky. The landscape turns a bloody red. As the film travels up the coast from New Jersey, it wreaks havoc on cities, the highway, farmhouses and open water. Spielberg provides a few interludes for plot and character development, but War of the Worlds retains its focus. This is a film about destruction. If you appreciate carnage for carnage's sake, you'll be thrilled. War of the Worlds sets a new standard for disaster movies. It is graphic and fierce. And is gorgeous, in its horrifying way. But if you prefer deeper meaning with your destruction (or if you expect more from a Spielberg film), you might find yourself asking, "So what?" War of the Worlds is a failure of imagination. It's surprisingly one-dimensional. The hero in Spielberg's film is Ray (Tom Cruise), who arrives home from work to find himself on dad duty. His son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, whom I loathe) are staying at his place while their mom and stepdad take the weekend off. The kids are not in good hands. Ray is selfish and myopic -- far from the ideal caretaker. Except, that is, during an apocalypse. Once the aliens arrive, Ray proves himself a world-class protector. At first, the aliens take the form of a freakish electrical storm. Next, the ground rumbles. Soon, giant, reptilian tripods emerge and begin stomping the neighborhood. We've seen these scenes before. The aliens (or giant lizards, or robots, or Daryl Hannah) wrecking our cities and crushing defenseless humans. But Spielberg makes them feel new. There's nothing campy about War of the Worlds, thanks to Spielberg's technical proficiency, dedication to storytelling and discipline. Spielberg refuses to let his FX drive his film. Instead, he flashes horrors at us. It's a highly effective (and nightmare-inducing) strategy. When Spielberg does slow things down -- to show us, for example, a hellish, burning passenger train, still zipping down the tracks -- the enormity of the devastation becomes clear. Another smart move by Spielberg: he always keeps people in the frame. This is a human's-eye view of a holocaust. We watch Spielberg's characters as they run from exploding carnage, and get a sense of what it feels like to be stalked by giant aliens. Still, War of the Worlds is more a funhouse journey than a human story. Spielberg takes a few stabs at suggesting how humans will relate to each other under enormous stress. There's one frightening mob scene, and a sequence with Rachel and Ray hiding in a dank basement with a crazed survivor (Tim Robbins). The basement scenes feel superfluous, a nod, perhaps, to Wells' novel, which detailed the thoughts and emotions of an everyman who struggled to comprehend the incomprehensible. Nothing remotely cerebral makes it into Spielberg's movie. And that's a surprise. In Spielberg's previous films, you could feel the director stretching for meaning: Jaws explored our collision with wildness; Poltergeist our dislocation from the past; Jurassic Park, the perils of exploitative science. It's unclear what War of the Worlds invites us to think about. That alien attacks are a super way to bond with your kids?