The biggest blockbuster of the summer is a thrilling but surprisingly bleak affair filled with post 9/11 angst.
Nearly 30 years on from depicting aliens as friendly visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind Steven Spielberg has fashioned a very different alien invasion movie. Despite all the negative pre-release publicity surrounding its star Tom Cruise and an embargo on reviews till the release date suggesting something bad was afoot, it is a surprisingly lean and subversive summer blockbuster. Adapting the themes of H.G. Wells’s original novel to contemporary America, Spielberg and screenwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman explore the fears of the most powerful nation on the planet whilst also crafting an exciting and absorbing drama.
Taking its cue more from Orson Welles rather than H G Wells, the film takes place in New Jersey, the same setting Welles used in his famous 1938 radio version. Like that production, Spielberg maintains a commitment to realism by mostly eschewing big CGI battles and focusing on the alien invasion through the eyes of one family. Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is the divorced father of two who is looking after his two children (Justin Chatwin & Dakota Fanning) when a strange lightning storm precipitates a truly nightmarish alien invasion. As thousands are killed and neighbourhoods destroyed, Ray manages to escape the initial attack and take his family on the road to find their mother (Miranda Otto) in Boston. However, as the carnage unfolds Ray discovers the horrifying extent of the invasion and has to deal with his inabilities as a father as well as the marauding alien tripods that are laying waste to America.
Steven Spielberg’s better work of late (Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan) has been a darker antidote to his more saccharine disappointments (AI and The Terminal) and War of the Worlds continues the trend. Although he can’t resist exploring family relations he has created an unusual summer film, a claustrophobic blockbuster in which most of the action takes place off screen to highlight the terror felt by the central characters. In an a direct reversal of other alien invasion films like Independence Day, there is no visible destruction of famous landmarks or presidents making key decisions. In their place we have a beguiling portrayal of confusion, panic and desperate human behaviour as survivors struggle to cope with what has happened.
At times the film makes no hesitation in referencing America’s most recent catastrophe as we see victims covered in ash and relatives of victims holding up pictures of missing loved ones. It nearly borders on the cynical but seems (to me at least) restrained enough to evoke the terror of that day and imply certain misgiving about the limits of America’s military power. The army for instance is powerless against the alien tripods and the ignorance of a survivalist (played by Tim Robbins) seems to be a jab in the direction of those who wish to simply respond with force alone. As you might expect from Spielberg the action set pieces are extremely well handled, but the film’s most powerful moments come in small but potent doses be it the quiet parade of human corpses floating down a river or the chilling foghorn sound that announces the arrival of the tripods.
The performances from the leads are all effective without being spectacular but as the film is more memorable for its central concept than any individual element. Over a century ago HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds partly as a critique of British imperialism and the limits of invading other countries. Against the backdrop of 9/11 and Iraq, Spielberg has fashioned an adaptation that remains true to the original and yet relevant for modern audiences. It is not quite up there with his very best work but for a director of his stature and influence it is an encouraging sign that Hollywood can reference world events as well as providing escape from them.
> Official Site
> IMDb Link
> Spielberg & Cruise interview each other on Moviefone
> German magazine Der Spiegel interview with Spielberg and Cruise that is certainly not the usual puff piece you get ahead of major film release
> Timothy Noah of Slate is offended by the 9/11 imagery in the film…
> …but his colleague David Edelstein is not
> A look at the different media incarnations of The War of the Worlds
> Wikipedia on HG Wells
> Read the eText of the HG Wells novel on Line
> Horsell Common – the site where the aliens landed in the novel