OFC title

War of the Worlds

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Dakota FanningSteven Spielberg makes summer blockbusters with a lot of heart – interspersed with the hurling cars, exploding buildings and erupting city streets, is a story that first firmly connects the audience with an ordinary American family with their share of problems – the divorced dad is taking care of his insecure ten-year-old daughter and distant teenage son for a weekend – then sets up the plot. Alien robots, evidently planted long, long ago, are rising out of the ground and attacking everybody in sight.

At the risk of sounding like a fan-boy geek, I just didn’t think the tripod robots – the only weaponry that the attacking aliens had – looked cool enough. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to stay true to the original – that’s basically what the robots looked like in the 1953 movie, if my memory serves me – I don’t remember if the book (1898 by H.G. Wells) described them that way. The robots looked much too earthly – the design looked ordinary, as if they had been assembled out of parts from a junk yard. Didn’t the lights look like standard automobile headlights? I would have liked to have seen some Ferry Disaster – great action sceneimaginative production design here – these are supposed to be machines built by a highly advanced alien civilization. I can’t help but think that Spielberg and company thought that having flashy, cool robots would diminish the drama of this old sci-fi classic – I don’t buy that.

Impressive production design and well-executed visual effects are an integral building block in action/disaster movies like these. I thought the robots in the recent Star Wars: Episode III looked much better – and there was so much variety among those bots! Here in War of the Worlds we got only one type of robot… and a mediocre one at that. If I were a spending $135 million producing a sci-fi-disaster film, I would want the attacking robots to knock you for a loop visually. The same comment applies to the alien creatures themselves – ho-hum visually, and they weren’t developed as characters, even though they were supposed to be so intelligent and advanced. The every-day world of our human characters should look just like America in 2005, but the robots and aliens should reflect a wild sci-fi imagination – in sharp contrast to the ordinary people on earth. In a big movie like this, the filmmakers should go all out with the look of the bad-guy attackers.

Spectacular Crowd ScenesOverall, War of the Worlds is a very impressive looking film. When it comes to showing the effects of the invasion on large groups of ordinary people, the movie comes into its own. The strength of War of the Worlds is how the viewer first identifies with the family, then experiences the terror with them – robots erupting out of the pavement after multiple lightning strikes.

My favorite scene is a grand set piece at a ferry dock where hundreds of panicked people are trying to get on the ferry – presumably it’s safer on the other side of the river. The scene alternates between close-ups of the family and others in the crowd and wide shots of the enormous riot that all these terrified people are creating. Things are bad enough but then some tripods show up and mess with the boat among other things. It’s all classic disaster film material – stunning visually and well grounded in the story of the family we have been following. The wide shots showed hundreds of people but it never seemed as if it was just a few real actors in front and the rest computer-generated.

Dakota Fanning seems to be the most prolific and talented child actor working today. Playing the daughter, Rachel, she had to first establish herself as a worried, claustrophobic, but loving young girl – then launch into an intense series of emotional scenes in which she reacts to the apocalyptic events. She is the innocent at the center of the drama – Ray (Tom Cruise, as her father) must go to the wall to protect her.

Tim Robbins, Tom Cruise, Dakota FanningNot to take anything away from Tom Cruise’s performance in this picture, but I think the story would have been more interesting, more humanized – which is clearly what they were going for – if a more ordinary actor – more of an every-man, less of a matinee idol – had been cast. The whole point of this disaster movie – it’s disaster more than sci-fi – is how one family pulls together and deals with a horrific situation that they don’t understand. An average-looking, middle-aged actor – a good character actor – would have been better suited to bring home the point that these are ordinary folks – and help the viewer to identify with them. I kept wondering if Tom Cruise was going to jump into an F-16 and start zapping away at the tripods.

Steven Spielberg did a great job of putting the elements together for slam-bang disaster movie. He serves up a visual (and audio) wham-o every few minutes, while not neglecting to connect us to a believable family struggling to survive. As in the original material, nobody knows much about the attackers – who and why – we never know. It worked pretty well since then the entire focus is on the dad and the two kids. Although the movie’s set in the present day, the look of the robots gave the movie a bit of a retro look – and I’ve seen so much of that lately that I wish that had been handled differently – with more imaginative production design. I also believe that the type of story they were telling – about an ordinary family – would have taken hold even better with a frumpy, middle-aged character actor. War of the Worlds might not have opened to $101 million in its first six days without Tom Cruise, but it might have attracted more older moviegoers and done just as well in the long run. In any case, if this kind of summer blockbuster appeals to you, you have to see it in 35mm – all those wham-o action beats just won’t fully translate to DVD.

Photographs are copyright Paramount Pictures.

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