War of the Worlds

Here come the Thetans!

By Matt Springer
July 01, 2005

There are many kinds of Spielberg movies, and many flavors of Spielberg.

There is the preachy ham-handed Spielberg of Amistad, the genius collaborator Spielberg of Raiders, the light and boppin’ Spielberg of Catch Me If You Can.

Then there is the Spielberg who is the master engineer of popcorn entertainment, and it is this Spielberg who brings us War of the Worlds.

This is a Spielberg Movie, front and center, in its totality. You look at Raiders and it’s a great Spielberg film, but it’s also a great role for Harrison Ford, and a genius story from George Lucas. Saving Private Ryan is as much a war movie as a Spielberg movie, and E.T. is as much a fairy tale as a Speilberg movie. These are all cases where he shares the screen with something else—a story, or actors, or a message.

He’s not sharing in War of the Worlds, just as he didn’t really share on Jaws or Jurassic Park. It is a super-sized summer popcorn thrill ride. He is in full command of the widgets and googaws within this construct, effortlessly pushing the pieces around on the board until the audience’s nerves are in checkmate.

It’s a pretty awesome creation, mixing scads of fear and paranoia ripped straight from the post-9/11 zeitgeist with a relentlessly focused point-of-view and some fist-clenchingly tight action and suspense set pieces. The FX from ILM buttress Spielberg’s goals with style and power to spare; they’re not the stars of the show, but instead serve a fierce and unstoppable story and vision.

The film’s greatest impact may come when War of the Worlds stops being about the invasion and starts being about the people devastated by the invasion. There’s a sequence involving Cruise and his family in a minivan that everyone in a pounding mob wants for themselves; it is a bleak but real portrait of how we all probably would react in similar circumstances. Throughout, Spielberg takes time and the attention away from the aliens and the fleeing to remind us that we would be just as scary to each other as the aliens would be to us if this were ever to really happen. That’s a layering of impact and meaning I honestly didn’t expect from the film, and it elevates it beyond expectations in a considerable way.

Less effective are the numerous allusions to 9/11 iconography, from the dust of humans floating through the air to the inevitable board of pictures from relatives desperate to locate their loved ones. The story itself is its own allegory; we didn’t need the ham-handed literal lifts from our country’s greatest modern tragedy.

Of course, even in his most populist blockbuster mode, it wouldn’t be Spielberg without a few stumbles. The central family of the story, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning and some kid whose name I can’t be bothered to look up online, aren’t really believable until shit starts flying around and their behavior becomes little more than a placeholder for the viewer’s own reactions.

It was smart of Spielberg to narrow this story to one guy and his kids experiencing all this mayhem, instead of the more conventional blockbuster route of the big-ass explosive disaster movie. It’s just that none of these actors are believable or nuanced enough to pull off the empathy the film’s early scenes require of the audience. Tom Cruise plays his asshole dock worker like an action hero waiting for the action to start, and Dakota Fanning is the most chilling and creepy child actor ever to grace the screen. She’s like a little robot designed to perform; there’s nothing natural about her performance. It’s all so eerily reasoned and precise.

There’s already been some online debate about the film’s final thrity minutes, but it worked for me incredibly well; where Spielberg screws it all up is of course in the ending, which gives us an idiotic and unreasonable closure for these characters, one that may have been earned but that flies in the face of the very logic the film itself has established.

I liked very much that Cruise’s teenaged son runs off on his own, directly disobeying his father; the way it plays out was an intense and emotional high mark in the movie. The kid represents a very valid rage that acts as an allegory to the same reactions we Americans have to the senselessness of terrorism and the powerlessness it induces. And in that moment when Cruise lets his son go, he is literally forced to choose between talking his boy into not making this huge mistake and watching his daughter get carried away in a tide of hysterical fleeing humanity. It is SUCH a terrific scene. Incredibly emotional, surprisingly unflinching.

Then the kid somehow manages to make it to Boston on his own and to be there when Daddy arrives to give pop a hug. Wha–?! Did we need that much closure? Couldn’t we just as easily have ended on Cruise and Fanning arriving in Boston, knowing they were alive and the aliens were dead and they’d made it to their destination? Did we need the lathering of further closure and senseless resolution for this story to work?

We didn’t, but of course, Spielberg seems to think we did, so whatever. To some, it will ruin the film; to me, it was a relatively minor stumble.

I went into War of the Worlds with probably unreasonable expectations; the ads and the reviews gave me the sense that I’d have a rollicking good time, but it’s not really fun, not like Jaws or Jurassic. It’s too grim and unrelenting to be fun. That it is grim and unrelenting doesn’t make it a bad time at the movies, though; in fact, it makes the enterprise all the more terrifying, because it’s not just a summertime lark about aliens invading the earth, but instead gives us a dark window into what happens when an unrelenting outside force shuts humanity down.