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

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on June 23, 2005, in 2005 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I have the film on DVD, and have also read the novel by H.G. Wells. The movie’s overall plot follows the book very closely. As for the special effects, they truly are spectacular!

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