In a seemingly benign, yet ultimately ominous line of dialogue early in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, the ex-wife of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a New Jersey dock worker and charmingly deadbeat dad, says to him after dropping off their two kids for the weekend, "Take care of our children." At the time she says it, she has no idea that the world as they know it is on the brink of utter destruction and that her admonition to Ray will soon take on a dimension previously unimaginable. It's a perfect moment of irony, reminding us that the worst always happens when we least expect it.
The worst in this case is an alien invasion, one that has been planned for millions of years because the enormous tripod alien machines used to eviscerate anything and everything in their paths don't come from the skies, but rather emerge from deep beneath the ground where they were buried long ago. The alien craft have a retro quality in that they conform to the descriptions and illustrations of H.G. Wells' Victorian-era source novel, but rather than detracting from the movie's modern setting, this retro-ness adds to their displaced uncanniness. The spindly legs on which they stand give them a snaky, insect-like quality that makes them more monstrous than mechanical.
In War of the Worlds, Spielberg has crafted a genuinely traumatic summer event movie, one that gives us images of violence and destruction of often devastating emotional weight. Not since A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) has he used a movie to cut so close to the bone, and while War of the Worlds lacks that movie's emotional-thematic resonance, it is nonetheless the most gripping and accomplished work he's done in years. As a rebuke to his previous alien movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), War of the Worlds is at times shocking, yet it fits well with Spielberg's increasingly dark cinematic worldview, which has been slowly saturating his output ever since he made Schindler's List in 1993. In a way, it's like he's never been able to shake the Holocaust, and despite his constant attempts to tack on upbeat endings, his films from the past 10 years have been increasingly preoccupied with loss, trauma, and suffering in ways that even the sunniest of endings can't recuperate.
Trauma is the operative word in War of the Worlds, which bears the distinct stamp of 9/11 in virtually every respect. It is not so much that catastrophic destruction on the big screen immediately brings to mind the televisual images of the Twin Towers coming down, but that Spielberg actively engages in associating the events in his sci-fi spectacle with the traumatic memories from four years earlier. The shattered, flaming remains of a downed airplane, with bodies still strapped into the seats, teary-eyed family members posting signs with the pictures of missing loved ones, and a major character covered in the chalky gray dust of eviscerated bodies are just a few of the movie's most strikingly associative images, and when people scream in the movie, it doesn't have the canned cadence of hundreds of extras responding to instructions through a bull-horn, but rather a real sense of panicked terror. The idea of the tripods being buried in the ground-essentially planted in our midst, awaiting the right moment to strike-evokes the ever-present fears, stoked by post-9/11 stories about the hijackers, of terrorists moving among us. We fear invasion, but more than anything we fear invasion from within our own midsts.
Of course, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. In each of its major incarnations, War of the Worlds has born the weight of the times. It was originally written as a serialized novel in 1898 by the pessimistic sci-fi master H.G. Wells, whose fears of modernization gave the story of Martian invaders a prescient kick. When it was brought to life as a famously panic-inducing radio show by Orson Welles's Mercury Theater in 1938, it was cast in the eerie light of a world on the brink of war. And when it was made into a groundbreaking event movie by George Pal in 1953, it became a perfect example of Cold War paranoia and fears about a Red invasion.
All of those versions of the story took a wide view of the events, so one of the main differences in the new movie is that screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp restrict our view of what's happening to the realm of three people: Ray Ferrier and his two children, his angry 15-year-old son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and his precocious 10-year-old daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning). This eliminates many of the clichs associated with alien-invasion stories and other movies that rely on the spectacle of mass destruction, particularly the images of major monuments being destroyed. Instead, much of the large-scale violence is seen only in fragmented form, often through a partially obscured window or reflected in a rearview mirror. Spielberg doesn't scrimp on the special effects-deep inside, he knows they're the film's bread and butter-but he recasts the FX-heavy destruction from an individual point of view, which is what gives it emotional weight. He is also deeply cognizant of aftermath, and many of the movie's most striking, borderline horrific images are not of the carnage in action, but the eerily quiet moments after, such as a river choked with corpses and a nightmarish walk through a forest at night while empty clothing rains down from above.
Spielberg has always been hailed (or criticized) as a filmmaker deeply in touch with our collective inner child, and it is possibly for this reason that he is also so good at tapping into the kinds of childlike fears that we never really grow out of, but simply learn to cope with. Throughout Spielberg's films, children have often borne the brunt of violence (think of the Indian child slaves in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Carol Anne being abducted by ghosts in Poltergeist), and it is no different here. Dakota Fanning's Rachel gets the worst of it throughout War of the Worlds simply because she is a child. She doesn't necessarily go through anything worse than the other characters, but her youth makes her experience that much worse. It is telling that Ray spends as much of the movie trying to protect her psychologically as he does physically, at one point covering her eyes with a blindfold-not to protect her from witnessing alien-inflicted violence, but rather some of his own.
While most of the carnage in War of the Worlds is the work of the invaders, Spielberg doesn't turn a blind eye to how such catastrophe brings out both the best and the worst in people. In terms of the former, the movie is clearly intent on redeeming Ray as a father figure, showing that, despite his lousiness as a dad in everyday life, his paternal instinct to protect his children maintains a natural sharpness. It is interesting, in this respect, to see Cruise playing the character, since he has so often played ambitious young men acting out against their missing father figures.
Ray's hard-scrabble heroism (it is never, in any sense, superhuman) constantly runs up against the actions of other people who are behaving just as he is-in the interest of self-preservation-but with a sometimes crueler (read: more desperate) edge. The movie's most disturbing sequence doesn't involve aliens at all, but rather a mob of people who tear Ray and his family from the minivan in which they're driving (one of the only working cars around). As Ray and his children stumble into a nearby diner, we see through the window behind them strangers shooting each other to get control of the van, which is the breaking point for Ray, causing him to openly weep in front of those for whom he is trying to be strong.
All of this suggests that War of the Worlds is not your typical summer event movie. If anyone other than Spielberg had directed it and if anyone other than Cruise were starring in the lead role, studio executives would have surely demanded that it be given a lighter tone with more emphasis on heroism and salvation than death and destruction. One wonders if the film's final scenes, which attempt to offer a suggestion of hope and even go so far as to almost literally resurrect a character from death, weren't the product of a committee meeting to dampen the film's otherwise bleak vision of annihilation. Perhaps so, but it is hardly enough to dispel, much less completely remove, the aftertaste of Spielberg's imagery, which despite its fantastical origins, is some of the most powerful of his career.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
Get a daily dose of San Jose Sun news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.