WAR OF THE WORLDS
116 minutes approx
Ray Ferrier -
Rachel Ferrier -
Robbie Ferrier -
Mary Ann -
Harlin Ogilvy -
Written by -
Josh Friedman and David Koepp
Directed by -
"Few people would have believed in the late years of the 19th century that the affairs of man were being watched from the timeless worlds of space..." or something like that. It's a marvellous opening and with Morgan Freeman giving the lines the gravitas that they deserve, you know that you're in for something special, even if those of us who are a certain age can't hear them without also hearing the opening strains of Jeff Wayne's concept album. Well something special WAR OF THE WORLDS definitely is.
Tom Cruise plays Ray, an ordinary guy who runs cranes for a living, who is estranged from his wife (Miranda Otto from THE LORD OF THE RINGS whose part must have taken a whole day to shoot) and out of touch with his kids. The day does not, therefore, start well when his ex drops off the kids, gets even worse when his son steals the car, really turns downhill when a strange lightning storm freaks out his daughter and knocks out all the electricity in the vicinity and definitiely goes to hell in a handbasket when a strange alien tripod rises up out of the ground and lays waste to everything around it. Getting his kids into the only working car around, Ray runs for the hills, but is waylaid at every step. The alien tripods are all over. They drop a jumbo jet on the house he is hiding in, capsize the ferry he is trying to cross the river on and generally make a nuisance of themselves.
WAR OF THE WORLDS is a clever amalgam of the HG Wells book and the George Pal movie. Spielberg takes from both liberally and welds them together into a film that starts off tense and gets ever more so. The woman sat next to me had her hand jammed into her mouth the whole time and probably has no fingernails left to speak of. This is not the cheap jump tactics of the lowbrow horror flick, but the superb sustained terror and panic of a crowd on the run. The threat from the aliens is everpresent, but is even outweighed in the ferry sequence by the threat posed by people willing to do whatever it takes to survive. The first casualty of war is humanity. This is brought to its pinnacle in the basement sequence where Ray and his daughter are locked up with the mad Ogilvy (Tim Robbins, overplaying it and the only bum note in the acting stakes). With aliens all around and getting ever more inquisitive, Ray must sacrifice his own decency in the cause of survival.
The special effects are, as we would expect, flawless, though the same cannot be said of the design. The shadow that casts its pall over the whole film is that of the fighting machine, the alien tripod. The first appearance is certainly the stuff of nightmares and beautifully handled, but in long shot, they don't convince, the designers not having overcome the problem of the tripedal transport system. The aliens themselves, when they are finally revealed, also suffer from being unconvincingly tripedal, and even have faces that are too cute to live up to the fighting machines that they man. On the other hand, the snake camera that stalks the basement (a direct homage to Pal's film) is marvellous.
Yet despite the fighting machines being not quite as good as we might have hoped, everything else about the film works. The action is astonishing, the kinetic, washed out photography giving the film an immediacy and grit that the pristine gloss that coated the likes of JURASSIC PARK could never have imparted. Dakota Fanning is equally astonishing as Ray's daughter Rachael who shares all his worst moments and never for a moment plays hollywood cute.
There are some dodgy moments in the plotting. Why the aliens hid their ships here millions of years ago and have only decided to come back now is never explained, nor why it was easier to bring their ships and bury them then rather than just bring them down now. Exactly why they are here at all (apart from causing death, destruction and mayhem) is also not as clear as it might be. Ok, we do see that they are siphoning off our blood to spray on their fields of red weed, but to what end?
WAR OF THE WORLDS, though, is not about tight plotting or deep characterisation. It is about the creation and sustaining of knuckle-tightening fear. Whilst the crowd coming out may have been discussing the film's few flaws, they were doing so in the fashion of people trying to convince themselves that they really weren't scared.
What with BATMAN BEGINS and now this, the summer blockbuster season looks like it's shaping up very nicely indeed.
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