Monthly Archives: June 2005

War of the Worlds (2005)

Steven Spielberg is America’s favorite director. He’s made films about alien encounters before (hell, it was most of the title of one movie), but Spielberg has never tackled evil aliens. Alien movies either involve cuddly little green men or the kind that want to destroy our planet. The latter is usually more interesting and finally Spielberg takes the trip with War of the Worlds.

Instead of focusing on high-ranking government officials, War of the Worlds concentrates on an everyday man just trying to save his family. Ray (Tom Cruise) is a New Jersey dock worker and a divorced pop. His ex-wife (Miranda Otto) has dropped off the kids (Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin) for the weekend. Ray isn’t exactly father of the year and his sullen kids remind him of this fact. Meanwhile, there seems to be a series of lightning storms hitting the world that then leave an electronic magnetic field that eliminates all the electricity in the area. A storm hovers over New Jersey and lightning strikes not once but over twenty times in the same spot. Ray goes to investigate the site. The ground beneath trembles and caves in. A giant machine with three tentacle-like legs emerges from the earth and starts zapping any humans it can find. Ray escapes, packs up the kids in the only working car in town, and runs, runs, runs, all with the aliens just a step behind ready and waiting for a people zappin’.

There are three things an audience will have to put behind them in order to enjoy what War of the Worlds has to offer.

1) The film has no plot. War of the Worlds spends the first 15 minutes setting up its handful of characters and their misery with each other. After that, it’s nothing but all-out alien attacks. That’s really it. Ray and the kids run to one place and think they’re safe. The aliens come and attack. Ray and the kids escape to a new place. The aliens come and attack. Lather, rinse, repeat. There is little more to War of the Worlds.

2) Spielberg has pretty much forgotten how to make good endings. I think A.I. was the nail in the coffin. Routinely Spielberg films seem to run out of gas or end rather anticlimactically, but A.I. really cemented the glaring fact that Spielberg cannot sit still with an unhappy ending. So, yes, War of the Worlds both ends anticlimactically and with an abrupt happy ending. Of course the H.G. Wells novel ends in the same fashion so there’s less to gripe about, until, that is, until you reach the implausible reunion. Spielberg can’t keep well enough alone and forces the story to be even happier at the cost of logic.

3) Ignore whatever feelings you hold about Tom Cruise. Off-screen, many feel that Cruise is becoming an obnoxious, pampered, self-involved, couch-jumping cretin. No matter what your feelings about Cruise and his self-taught knowledge about the history of psychiatry, that is not who is in War of the Worlds. He is playing a character. I never understood the argument that because you dislike an actor as a person it invalidates all their acting. I’ve read magazines that actually say people are staying away from Cinderella Man because people think Russell Crowe is a grump. In War of the Worlds, Cruise plays a deadbeat dad who finds his paternal instincts during the end of the world. The character isn’t deep and acts as a cipher for the audience to put themselves in the scary story. Plus it’s not like Cruise is a bad actor; he has been nominated for three Oscars.

Since this is a large Hollywood horror film, the acting consists mainly or healthy lungs and frightful, big-eyed expressions. So it seems natural that little Dakota Fanning would play the role of Child in Danger. Cruise somehow finds some points in the story to exhibit good acting. There’s a moment right after Ray and his kids escape to their mother’s home. He tries making them food out of whatever they saved which amounts to little more than condiments and bread. His kids rebuff his offer and he throws the sandwiches against a window and repeats to himself to breathe. In lesser hands this moment would just be some light comedy, but Cruise turns it into an opportunity to see the character’s desperation. Tim Robbins shows up late playing a nutball going through some self-induced cabin fever.

War of the Worlds, at its core, is a post-9/11 horror film on a mass scale. Spielberg plays with our paranoia and anxiety and creates a movie that is fraught with tension and an overriding sense of inevitable annihilation. The aliens are so advanced and so powerful. The deck definitely seems to be stacked against Earth. I felt great amounts of dread throughout the film knowing that the aliens will find you, they will get you, and it’s only a matter of time. And that’s the recipe for a perfectly moody horror film. War of the Worlds is chilling in its depiction of worldly destruction, and yet it becomes even more terrifying by how realistic everything seems as the world falls apart when its under attack. The introduction of huge, human-zapping aliens is expected to be scary, but who knew human beings at their wit?s end could be just as scary? A crowd of people turns into a violent mob fighting for any last bit of space in Ray’s working car. A man sitting on top of the hood is actually ripping away chunks of windshield with his bare, bloody hands.

War of the Worlds really benefits from awesome special effects. As stated before, we live in a jaded age where most special effects have lost feeling special. Computer advancements have also created a more advanced audience able to point out the big screen fakery at a faster pace. If you don’t believe me, look back at some movies from 1995 or so and see if you’re still wowed. War of the Worlds marvelously displays destruction on such an incredible scale. City streets ripped apart, houses blown up, cars flipping through the air, ferries plunged into the water, and it all looks as real as can be. There are moments I know that have to be computer assisted, like seeing miles and miles of stranded vehicles and people on the side, but it looks like they filmed it for real. The only thing that seemed hokey was people being vaporized by alien ray guns and having their clothes remain. I don’t know if Spielberg was going for a veiled Schindler’s List reference or they thought anything more grim could rock their PG-13 rating.

Due to all of this realism, War of the Worlds is not a film to take young children to see. The startling realism and suffocating sense of dread will keep kids up for weeks with nightmares, maybe some adults too. There’s more than a passing reference to 9/11, and that may be a wound too fresh for some. Thousands of people walk the streets as homeless refugees. There are large tack boards with hopeful missing fliers of relatives. One of the most horrifying images consists of a flowing river filled with floating corpses. There’s also a grand set built around the remains of a downed airplane. When Ray is trying to explain the situation at first, his son interjects, “Were they terrorists?” Spielberg calculatingly uses our memories of 9/11 to create a true-to-life horror story that doesn’t feel exploitative. “War” implies some kind of even ground. This is a massacre, and one parents should be wise not to bring youngsters to.

With War of the Worlds, Spielberg has crafted a chilling, realistic, post-9/11 horror movie. The action is big, the destruction is bigger, and the dread is at a near breaking point. Sure the movie is plotless and the ending is anticlimactic and forcibly happy, but War of the Worlds should appeal to those looking for the safe way to witness the end of the world. Spielberg invented the big summer movie and War of the Worlds is a taught return to form. It’s not much more than watching aliens destroy things but for many that will be plenty for a summer movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

The new action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith sure seems to be in the headlines a lot. Most from tabloids trying to connect Angelina Jolie as the catalyst for why Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have filed for divorce. You can’t walk past a checkout counter without being screamed at by 15 magazine covers. Too bad the actual movie seems to be forgotten in the process. That’s a shame because Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one terrifically fun summer ride that you don’t want to get off of (kind of like Jolie and/or Pitt, depending upon which way you swing).

Things aren’t so peachy for the Smiths (Jolie and Pitt). They met and married in Columbia amid a flurry of action but now it seems like their lives have become quite mundane as husband and wife. Life at work, though, is quite the opposite. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are hiding a whopper of a secret — that they’re hired assassins. They’ve both been hired to take out the same mark (Adam Brody) and accidentally discover each other’s true identity. Of course both spies are now compromised so they’re assigned to bump off their spouse. And you thought your marriage was murder. Mr. and Mrs. Smith combat their real feelings and put the spark back into their marriage by trying to kill each other, the little taught alternative in marriage counseling courses.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith has a vibrant sex appeal to it. Pitt and Jolie are extraordinarily beautiful people, no question, but they also have sizzling chemistry. The looks they give could ignite the screen. Even when they’re at each other’s throats you like them and hope for the best. The stars’ sex appeal and the film’s off kilter tone collides in fun ways. A knockout, drag-out fight between husband and wife turns into foreplay that literally brings the house down. The most unbelievable aspect of the movie is the idea that these gorgeous people would grow sexually tired with one another.

The leads are terrific and terrific together. Jolie has finally found the right role for her. She’s the perfect balance between tough and sexy. She could very easily kick my ass and look good doing it. Originally Nicole Kidman was going to play Mrs. Smith before scheduling conflicts put the kibosh on that. I can not see Kidman working. I’m not afraid of Kidman, but with Jolie I’d do whatever she says. Jolie has a real kick in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the audience can feel it too. It also helps that she looks absolutely magnificent. Finally, her beauty and wildness are put to excellent use. I’ve always thought Pitt got a bad rap as an actor for being pretty. Sure, he’s built like a Greek God (and played one in Troy) but this man can act. People seem to forget he was nominated for an Oscar for Twelve Monkeys. Pitt exudes a natural calm and always seems a smirk away from getting out of anything. These traits serve him well as a smooth criminal. Even when he’s whacking people with a golf club he seems easygoing.

The tone needs to be very specific for Mr. and Mrs. Smith to work. I mean, one false step and husband and wife revitalizing their marriage by trying to kill each other turns from funny to horrifying. Mrs. and Mrs. Smith walks that delicate line but nails the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone needed to make this movie soar. When you boil it down, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is essentially a modern day screwball romance. Instead of sparring with witticisms they spar with heavy-duty weaponry (I can only imagine what Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn could have done with knives and bazookas).

After Mr. and Mrs. Smith find out the true identities of their spouses, they both know it’s kill-or-be-killed. Both tread very carefully and are highly suspicious that any little thing, like a glass of wine, a trip to the bathroom, could be the trigger to their demise. Now, if the tone weren’t exactly perfect, this sequence would seem overly silly or overly cruel. Instead, the sequence comes across as being very funny. Pitt and Jolie nail the casual awkwardness as they test one another. Even the ending of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is laugh-out-loud perfect with the film’s vibe. I will go so far to say it’s the greatest ending line for a film since 1959’s Some Like it Hot.

It seems that if you want your action done right, you call Doug Liman to be director. Liman, as he did with 2002’s stellar The Bourne Identity, can craft highly imaginative, stylish, and playful action sequences that are low on pesky CGI and high on thrills. He makes sure the audience can witness every balletic move of his orchestration. He’s likes his fireballs big, though not Michael Bay the-sun-is-exploding big. If you want an inventive use of ordinary objects, Liman’s your man. There’s a fabulous car chase that utilizes a mini-van in surprising and gleeful ways. While dodging bullets and bad guys, Mr. Smith slides the vehicle’s doors open on both sides. When a bad guy jumps into the car, he grabs the baddie and swings him out the other side in one continuous motion.

This isn’t a movie to take too seriously. Yes, the plot is pretty goofy at turns and the Smiths seem nigh invincible. Yes, the bad guys are all terrible shots. Yes, it would be unlikely for the Smiths to take out 100 or so armed men surrounding them. Yes, it seems like the resolution would be cloudy because they’d still be wanted as husband and wife assassins. Yes, Brody is wearing a Fight Club T-shirt. None of this matters. Of course a world of super spies and gadgets is going to be goofy, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith never winks at the camera. This is one romantic comedy with a macabre edge and a devilish sense of humor. I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the big blast of fun I’ve been waiting Hollywood to deliver all year. The action sequences are inventive, exciting, and quite sexy. Seeing the two hottest people on the planet (Thora Birch excluded, obviously) kiss, fight, shoot each other, and blow stuff up is entertainment in itself, but the chemistry between Jolie and Pitt is in the five-alarm area. This will not be a movie for everyone. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about married assassins who do kill people and get off on trying to kill each other. But for people who like their summer ventures to have a little malevolent glee, Mr. and Mrs. Smith will hit the right note. I can only hope for the eventual sequel – Mr. and Mrs. Smith Go to Washington. Imagine that potential filibuster sequence and try not to smile. You can’t!

Nate’s Grade: A-

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