War of the Worlds Movie Review

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Steven Spielberg's huge-budget update of "The Warof the Worlds," H.G. Wells' seminal alien-invasion novel from 1898,is a problematic blockbuster with one essential saving grace: It's profoundlyfrightening in a way that few directors have the talent to capture.

I'm not talking about masked-psycho-with-a-chainsaw scary.That's kids' stuff. This is a slow, relentless, meticulous fear. It's thefear of uncertainty, the fear of grand-scale devastation that humanityis powerless to stop. It's a fear that fills the air like a storm and creepsup your spine in a way that's hard to shake. It is a fear not unlike whatevery American felt on September 11, 2001 -- but divorced from fact andrealigned as entertainment through the subconsciously reassuring comfortof a movie theater seat and a tub of popcorn.

It's visceral, it's psychological, and it comes more fromthe terrified performances of Tom Cruise and the remarkable Dakota Fanning(the angelic 10-year-old from "Hide& Seek" and "Manon Fire") -- as a dock-worker deadbeatdad and his daughter on the run from 100-foot alien killing machines --than from the film's hyper-realistic special effects and monsters (whicharen't that different from the ones in the shamelessly corny "Warof the Worlds" rip-off "Independence Day").

The film is worth seeing just to experience this fear,which is a testament to the power of cinema.

Unfortunately, if you look beyond this seat-gripping scarefactor and the spectacular imagery of the Earth under siege by towering,tentacled, three-legged alien tanks that fire building-leveling, human-crispingheat-rays -- if you look at the script and characters at its core -- this"War of the Worlds" starts falling apart from its opening voice-over.

One of the few elements lifted directly from Wells in thisadaptation written by David Koepp ("Spider-Man," "Mission:Impossible"), the book's first sentence (as read ominously by an uncreditedMorgan Freeman) doesn't make a scrap of sense when removed from its 19thcentury context: "No one would have believed in the first years ofthe 21st century that this world was being watched keenly and closely byintelligences greater than man's..."

Huh? In 2005, everyone in the civilized world could easilybelieve aliens might be watching us. The notion has been a part of ourpop culture since, well, H.G. Wells -- and the passages read from the novelthat bookend this film are conspicuously incongruent with everything inbetween.

Koepp and Spielberg cherry-pick what they like from Wells'story (the aliens are no longer from Mars), but many of their changes resultin gaping plot holes, like the fact that the hundreds of thousands of thegiant, high-tech extraterrestrial "tripods" have supposedly beenburied on Earth for millennia.

How is it that not one of these things has ever been unearthedby thousands of years of erosion, plate tectonics, excavation and construction-- or detected by modern, ground-probing sonar equipment used to find fossilsand oil? Why didn't the aliens stay here when they brought all this equipmentin the first place? Do they just go around the universe burying weaponson planets they might want to invade someday?

Apparently so, and in this movie, the aliens return inwhat appear to be massive lightning storms all over the world, includingin the blue-collar neighborhood where Cruise's ex-wife (Miranda Otto) hasjust dropped off her kids (Fanning and a petulant teenage brother) fora visit with their selfish, irresponsible dad. When the inevitable panicensues, Cruise must learn typical Spielbergian lessons of fatherhood (thedirector's films often revolve around characters with major daddy issues)while spiriting his children to safety.

Despite the logical gaffes (and there are many, many more)and the heavy-handed emotionalism, Spielberg keeps a tight grip on thefilm's nail-biting atmosphere by never leaving his central characters'points of view. There is no B-story here about the military battle ragingjust over the next hill as Cruise and family flee in the opposite direction,and the invasion is all the more distressing and disorienting as a result.(This is not unlike what M. Night Shyamalan did in 2002's "Signs.")But by the same token, this often leaves Cruise's emerging parental responsibilitystanding between the audience and the action.

This "War of the Worlds" is further underminedby Spielberg's preposterously sanguine last scene and by Wells' originalfinale, which works perfectly on the page (and which was at the cuttingedge of science 100 years ago), but is anti-climactic in a Hollywood "eventmovie" -- especially when it has to be explained in Freeman's floridclosing narration before the ending becomes clear.

Steven Spielberg's masterful filmmaking (his blend of modernspecial effects with stylistic homages to classic science fiction filmsis just what this material called for) and the picture's resulting powerto twist your gut in a knot are not enough to overcome the flaws of "TheWar of the Worlds." But they are enough to distract you from thoseflaws long enough to have a goosepimpling good time at the movies.

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Comments

JudgeLeigh's picture

JudgeLeigh

I was gagging for this film to come out and was simply left feeling left down and gutted because this film really could of rocked .....but it croaked!Rob Blackwelder's review is spot on the money!

9 years 1 month ago
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Queen of the fairys's picture

Queen of the fairys

I think that war of the worlds was a great film. Lots of people moan about it but you have to take into account it's all about survival. I think Spielberg portrays the human need to survive so well. Also the special effects were amazing. And I have to confess thats all I was watching it for but the effects did really impress me. And those of u expecting amazing acting, come on you don't get outstanding acting in flims like this.

8 years 11 months ago
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War of the Worlds Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, WIDE: Friday, June 29, 2005

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