War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells' 19th century
novel War of the Worlds has become such a well-known story that you
have to wonder whether it is not so overly familiar that it would be almost
impossible to pull off as a film in the 21st century. After all,
beyond the novel the story has been told as Orson Welles' classic radio play
(which famously was so realistic that listeners to the 1938 show panicked en
masse), a 1953 movie, a TV series, even an overblown rock-concept album.
However, if anyone could
pull it off, that would seem to be Steven Spielberg. After all, he
specializes in the kind of widescreen, awe-inspiring, larger-than-life story
that this film requires. His direction here is a nice mixture of the
state-of-the-art and the charmingly nostalgic. In the end, War
of the Worlds is not a literary adoption at the level of his previous
Jaws, Schindler's List or even the popcorn immediacy of Jurassic
Park. However, it is a movie that will keep you riveted in
The story is simple, as it
must be. Tom Cruise is Ray, a New Jersey dockworker who is watching
after the kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) for the weekend. A
series of mysterious thunderstorms let loose an army of of giant Martian
robots which are out to destroy the earth. They turn their death rays
on people and buildings, blowing up or crushing anything that gets in their
path while living on human blood. These huge, murderous tripods with
evil looking red headlight eyes and dangerous tentacles are succeeding in
turning the Earth into a wasteland. Ray must keep his kids alive and
get them to their mother in Boston as the world smolders around him and
desperate survivors will do anything to get to safety.
The sense of malevolent
dread, fear and senseless evil is palpable, as human survivors give in to a
mob mentality and become nearly as deadly as the advancing force. Ray
and his family must travel, first by car, then by foot, through the
wasteland, coming across hundreds of dazed and desperate survivors like a
loose cannon survivalist played by Tim Robbins.
Cruise is effortlessly
likable as Ray, though you do slightly get the feeling he's phoning it in,
it is certainly not one of his more nuanced performances. Fanning and
Chatwin are fine as Cruise's cute ten-year-old daughter and sullen
fifteen-year-old son, though honestly they are only here to get into danger
and worry Ray.
The only real problem here
is that the film ends up finishing with a whimper, not a bang. But
despite the kind of disappointing ending, War of the Worlds is a very
good genre film -- one that serves its legendary inspiration well.
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Posted August 17, 2005.