Director Steven Spielberg’s take on the 1898 H.G.Wells novel War of the Worlds is a relentlessly grim and violent story of an alien invasion of earth. Schindler’s List notwithstanding, I’m hard-pressed to think of another film from Spielberg’s body of work that turns the screws as tightly as his new film. Even Jaws had some occasional tension relief: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Here instead Spielberg is brutal and ruthless. This is full-on post-9/11 Spielberg. The benevolent aliens of Close Encounters are gone. So too is the lost child alien of ET, both replaced by vicious killers hiding in our midst that we are powerless to stop. Attacking at will, they show no mercy. In fact, we can’t stop them. They are only defeated because they are an affront to the natural order of things. Hunker down, listen to Father, stay the course. In due time, without our having to do anything or change our ways, they will simply dry up and die. We will prevail because God has deemed it so.
Ray Ferrier (played by Tom Cruise) is an average joe, a New Jersey longshoreman whose marriage went bust because he was unable to face the responsibility of fatherhood. The film opens with Ray’s ex (Miranda Otto, wasted in a small role) dropping off her and Ray’s kids for the weekend: a sullen teenaged son (Justin Chatwin), and a young daughter (Dakota Fanning). After the ex departs with her new husband, and we’ve had a couple of scenes to establish Ray has little connection with his children, a violent lightning storm sets off an electromagnetic pulse that renders most electronics non-operational and activates alien machines that have been buried underground eons ago. The machines attack with devastating fury, incinerating people and destroying buildings, bridges and homes at will. Ray and his kids barely escape the destruction of his neighbourhood, and the film follows their harrowing escape to Boston to find his ex (presumably to drop the kids off again).
Spielberg purposely goes for the jugular by invoking 9/11 imagery. When the aliens’ heat rays vapourize people, their bodies explode into ash clouds, but their clothes remain intact, floating in the air. Whenever there’s a large-scale attack, the skies are soon full of wafting clothes, eerily reminiscent of the clouds of paper that rained down in Manhattan when the towers fell.
Referencing a number of films such as Close Encounters, The Abyss, Titanic, and Invaders From Mars, Spielberg keeps everything relentlessly brutal, at least until the sucky ending when Ray’s son, believed to have died during a battle between the aliens and the army, turns out to be alive. Not only alive, but somehow he even managed beat Cruise to his ex’s house in Boston. No matter how dark the film, Spielberg still can’t resist the happy ending.
Tom Cruise’s recent bizarre public behaviour notwithstanding, he is quite effective as the man-child forced to grow up (the usual Spielberg gimmick). Unfortunately for him, he’s mostly upstaged by 11 year-old Dakota Fanning. It is scary how good an actress she is. Many child actors in movies are given lines that are just atrocious (witness Jake Lloyd’s Anakin in Star Wars: The Phantom Movie Menace) and impossible for any actor to convincingly deliver, yet somehow Fanning manages to find the key to delivering even the most hackneyed dialogue.
The film is a visual spectacle, courtesy of ILM’s computer-generated tableaux of destruction. Even the venerable John Williams seems to have found new depths of dark musical tones to explore.
Ultimately, there is still something unsatisfying here. Perhaps Spielberg has done such a good job and spent so much time selling the horror and devastation of the alien attack that the rushed ending as the aliens suddenly succumb to earthly germs and Ray has a happy if improbable family reunion seems too much of a deus ex machina (which, being faithful to the novel, it is). Perhaps a little darker ending would have saved the bad taste the sudden sugar-coating leaves in this dark coffee of a movie.