War of the Worlds (2005)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 01/10/06 22:23:55

"One Man's Invasion."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The above quote is certainly not meant to suggest that Spielberg's version of HG Wells' classic has been dialled down to the invasion simply featuring one man. Rather, the invasion is seen through the eyes of one man, and his attempts to protect his family. And to keep on the numerical theme, second time around proves 'War of the Worlds' to be one of last years best movies, a disturbing and engrossing film that certainly has flaws, but flaws that on repeat viewings seem less annoying and intrusive. The slight feeling of bitter disappointment that that ending had left with this critic, was certainly not as apparent. And while this may still be a second-rate Spielberg film, it's still vastly superior to about 90% of other directors first-rate output.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a guy who seemingly doesn't have much going for him. He's a blue-collar worker on the docks with an estranged wife (Miranda Otto) who dumps his young daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and his teenage son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) on him for a weekend. Both have trouble connecting with their immature father, but quite frankly, they all have bigger problems than a lack of communication. A freak lightning storm hits the town, as similiar storms hit the rest of the globe, and huge, alien tripods pull themselves from the ground where the lightning hit. They don't come in peace however, and start laying waste to the town around them, disintegrating people into dust, forcing Ray to bundle Rachel and Robbie up and flee into the countryside, searching for salvation anywhere they can find it. This terrifying first half-hour ranks alongside the best of anything that Spielberg has ever opened any of his films with.

One of the most startling things about this reboot of 'War of the Worlds' is that quite often Spielberg takes the focus away from the invaders. He, and script writers Friedmann and Koepp, are canny enough to realise that while showing aliens lay waste to world famous landmarks and monuments are enough to inspire 'ooooh!' on first viewings, we've seen it all before and are unlikely to be inspired into repeat viewings on eye candy alone (although it has to be said that the tripods themselves, and their attacks are simply jaw-dropping).

Instead, we're shunted into Ray's fearful, paranoid and panicking point of view as he tries to keep his family safe in a world that is rapidly destabilizing. Indeed, probably the scariest scene is not one featuring the invaders, but instead a frenzied crowd descending into anarchy as they try to steal Ray's car. Instead, for a lot of time the tripods are simply lurking in the background, and as a fearful presence in our mind. A lot of critics have read 'War of the Worlds' as a 9/11 parable and beyond the obvious destruction that is wreaked, those readings are generally correct: the attack has come from 'terror cells' who were here already, a lot of the devastation is seen on news reports or through amateur videos and there's a constant sense of they could be attacking anywhere at anytime. It's this playing on current fears that elevates this above routine blockbuster fare. In fact, it's almost a disappointment when we do get a glimpse of the visitors because it's a reminder that we're only talking about cgi creations, and not a shadowy, unknowable threat after all.

And talking of disappointment, the flaws that seemed so jarring first time around, don't seem to jar so much after all. The flaws in the invaders plan (why have they waited so long, why didn't they consider what becomes their eventual downfall) don't seem glaring at all, and even that sappy ending doesn't seem half as sappy, knowing that it's coming.

And the basement scene towards the end, which on first viewing seemed to drain the tension right out of the film, reveals itself as a creepy gem of a finale. Tim Robbins is great here, and Tom Cruise's final actions in this section may be just about the darkest scene Spielberg has ever shot. Just think about it.

Cruise, who may well be one of the three most insane men on the planet, does some sterling work, convincing as a working-class Joe with far more right than he has as a multi-millionaire in real life. He's ably supported by Fanning and Chatwin and there's a nice pair of cameos at the end for fans of the original.

There's still a sense that this was just a tad too rushed through production, and Spielberg doesn't pull off the invaders downfall as well as the original - but then, maybe in our more cynical age, that ending couldn't be worked effectively by anyone. The original is still superior simply because it has a more world-wide, genuinely apocalyptic punch to it, but Spielberg has made an interesting, chilling companion piece to it. Indeed, considering that this is a film about an invasion by aliens, and filled with death and carnage, this may well be Spielberg's subtlest film. Keep watching those skies people...

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