Movie Review

Film Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

war-of-the-worlds-2005-posterSteven Spielberg’s The War Of The Worlds works best, for me, on the level of pure nightmare.

Not only my favorite adaptation of H.G. Wells’ timeless classic about the ultimate illegal aliens, this is clearly superior to both George Pal’s 1953 adaptation, and the much more recent Independence Day.

With more than serviceable characters/performances, and direction by Spielberg in his best action-adventure mode (think Jurassic Park, but less “fun”), WOTW maintains a breathless, adrenalin-fueled pace throughout most of its running time, though I think the lengthy section in the cellar could have used some judicious pruning. And, yes, there are things left unexplained and questions unanswered, but, for me, this was not, oddly enough, a weakness, but, rather, one of the reasons the film had the bracingly nightmarish quality it did.

The audience is thrust headlong into the first-person experience of the main protagonists in a vividly immediate way. And because they are ordinary civilians rather than the scientists and military figures that are the typical focus of other alien invasion films, we, as viewers, find ourselves as much in the dark as the films’ characters in terms of the whys and wherefores of the aliens and the specifics of their origins and agenda.There is certainly NO indication, this time round, that Mars is the alien’s point of origin. They could just as easily have come from an alternate dimension.

But all questions of this type are irrelevant to Spielberg’s intention which was simply to make as believable and harrowing as possible the moment-to-moment reality of what might happen if such events really did occur. And, in that regard, Mr. Spielberg succeeded brilliantly.

Not since Orson Welles’ notorious invasion of the airwaves has the notion of an assault on Earth by sinister and monolithic forces seemed so eerily plausible.

And never have H.G.’s tripoedal war machines been so perfectly and unforgettably realized. THIS, folks, is how the famed author himself must have imagined the awesome technology employed by his malevolent Martian marauders

NOTE: spoilers ahead:

Throughout the film one is startled by sometimes fleeting images of terrible eloquence that linger in the mind for days afterward — people’s clothing suddenly fluttering to the ground or drifting like birds on the wind as their former tenants are mercilessly vaporized — a house unexpectedly turned into an airplane crash-site complete with a surrealistically out-of-place flaming turbine and twisted fuselage — bodies suddenly floating into view along a formerly innocuous and placid river — people plucked screaming out of the Hudson River and pulled high up into the night sky by metallic alien tentacles — the countryside overrun by the arterial “red weed” of the aliens’ home planet.

End of spoilers.

And that’s just a random sampling of vividly memorable moments from this oddly underrated film.

Also meriting high praise are the film’s score by John Williams — unobtrusive in the best sense — the marvelous sound design (the weird fog-horn like “cry” of the war machines alone is worthy of major kudos), and, it goes without saying, the truly astounding effects by the brilliant Dennis Muren and his team of technical/artistic wizards at ILM. Never has CGI seemed less like CGI — thank God!

And there’s one remarkable moment where the camera, in one uninterrupted shot, moves around the interior of Cruise’s car, then out a window and around the front of the vehicle — all while being DRIVEN on the freeway. And so well handled is that shot, centering as it does on the interaction between the characters and the interplay of their emotions, that I confess I never even noticed that it HAD to be an EFFECT until seeing the film for the second time! Now THAT’S clever filmmaking!

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out both the unusually self-effacing work of Tom Cruise — willing to seem less than admirable and even unsympathetic at times, letting his character’s often spontaneous actions in the instinctive protection of his kids delineate his emerging heroism — and the remarkable performance of Dakota Fanning as Cruise’s precocious but not obnoxious daughter. She is really the emotional center of this film, charting the visceral gut response that stands in for the frightened inner child inside us all. The various levels of her bewildered incomprehension, growing terror, and self-protective withdrawal are masterfully portrayed with a rawness that is shocking in a performer so young.

Ultimately, this is a film of highlight set-pieces — the initial appearance of the war machines and the subsequent assault — the Hudson Ferry sequence and its aftermath — and the climactic harvesting of the human “cattle” (so disturbing that Spielberg found himself intensely uncomfortable while shooting it) — all strung together with just enough character interaction and supporting detail to justify our own emotional investment in this particular family unit.

But, minor flaws and all, this is, as I’ve already said up front, a very well crafted thrill machine, which operates best on the level of a bad dream. And, having once had a vivid nightmare myself about just such an apocalyptic alien invasion, I had a memorably creepy sense of deja vu as I sat in the theater watching Spielberg’s refreshingly uncuddly take on the nasty flip side of Close Encounters.

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Paul Clemens

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