Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds

There was a time, not so long ago, when the fact that there was a new Spielberg film out was enough to send me into a frenzy of anticipation. Then AI came out and I found myself falling asleep in the middle and wondered if I was ill or something. (After all, this was Spielberg. How could I not be entertained? I praised the movie loudly and kept my boredom to myself like a guilty secret). Then there was Minority Report which had to be the most pointless and arbitrary sci-fi thriller I’d ever seen – hell, even Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner was more exciting. Then there was Catch me if you can, which was pleasant enough, but hardly great cinema. By the time Terminal came out, I didn’t even bother making it to the Theatre.

Let’s face it, the guy hasn’t made a decent movie in over half a decade.

So when I finally dragged myself to a theatre to see War of the Worlds I wasn’t expecting much. And I wasn’t disappointed.

In some ways, I admit, War of the Worlds is a better movie than Spielberg’s other recent ones. Many of the scenes here are reminiscent of the Spielberg we know and love. It’s all there – the sense of frightened anticipation before the monster bursts on to the scene (Jurassic Park); the rapid spread of panic, those little snippets that show you the crowd reaction (Jaws); the confused camerawork that puts you right in the middle of the action (Saving Private Ryan); the ‘perspective shots’ that show you the true enormity of the horror (Jurassic Park, Jaws); the plainitive scenes of death and desolation, bodies laid out all around you / drifting on a river (Schindler’s List); that sense of half-horrified, half-amazed wonder (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET). It’s not just that the movie has great special effects, it’s more that Spielberg combines these special effects with an incredible artistic vision. Every time the camera pans out for a long shot the effect is of looking at a beautiful painting, the images are iconic, unforgettable, the colours vivid and palpable.

It’s a shame therefore, that the plot is lousy and that Spielberg spend some 80% of the movie focussing on the banal problems of one unengaging family. War of the Worlds gives Spielberg the opportunity to create a vision of a fictional Armageddon every bit as powerful as Schindler’s List or the first hour of Saving Private Ryan – this could have been the ultimate disaster movie – an incredible film about humanity’s struggle to survive in a hostile and hopeless world (a movie of the scale and power that only Spielberg could make). Instead, Spielberg chooses to give us a camp-y low-brow family drama.

What’s wrong with the plot? Everything. First, the very idea of focussing on the emotional issues between a divorced loser and his children is ridiculous. I mean, hello, the entire population of the world is being wiped out – it’s great that your kids are starting to call you Dad and respect you more, but don’t you think that as therapy goes this might be a bit expensive? Next time buy one of Dr. Phil’s books, for christ’s sake. It’s not even like these emotional issues are even particularly interesting or unique (at least I don’t think so; because the characters here remain primarily caricatures – despite all the time we spend with them – it’s hard to know what their problem really is). On the contrary much of the dialogue between father and children is pure kitsch. At one point, for instance, Ray has his son pinned to the ground to prevent him from joining in an attack on the tripods, and the son says “Dad, you’ve got to let me go. You’ve just got to let me go.” I mean, please, could we be more obvious than this?

The second problem is the miraculous way that everything goes right for this family. This both makes a mockery of the seriousness of the film and destroys any sense of suspense the movie might have had. Consider this: Ray and his kids get away in the only working vehicle in their entire neighbourhood, just seconds ahead of the evil death rays and drive across miles of highway covered with stalled cars without every having to slow down. A plane crashes into the house they’re staying in, destroying everything in sight except their car that doesn’t even get dented. They’re always the last to run away from the alien tripods but never get hit by fire and always get to safety way before everyone else. All the lucky breaks in this movie, every single one, go to them. Plus which, Ray (who has a day job as a crane operator – hardly a task that requires great intellectual ability or presence of mind) turns out to be the smartest, bravest guy around, the one who thinks of all the clever strategems, the one who fights the aliens most effectively. Even hindi movie heroes are more realistic. I mean, look, I’m all for happy endings, but would it have killed Spielberg to, well, kill someone? Or at least let them suffer something more than a scratch? And what about using some logic occassionally (the Tripods leave central Boston more or less unharmed, but hordes of them were roaming about the abandoned country house where Ray and his daughter were hiding – hardly the most efficient way to exterminate humans – let’s kill off all of the rural areas first, then we’ll get started on the cities)

It’s this sense of magical dispensation (coupled with the lack of anything resembling real dialogue) that makes War of the Worlds an emotionally hollow film. Sure, one feels the bewilderment of its characters – their fear, their panic. But beyond that the movie doesn’t really connect with them emotionally. This is not helped, of course, by the fact that Tom Cruise can’t act (only someone with his incredibly mediocre talent could make so simple a role look so desperately challenging) and Tim Robbins, who usually can act, decides not to do so here. It says a lot for the acting in a movie when the only somewhat compelling performance comes from a 10 year old (Dakota Fanning)

The result of all this is that when the aliens are finally defeated (disease arrives as a convenient deus ex machina to destroy them) what you feel is not so much relief as disappointment. In some ways, Spielberg seems to echo this mood – the end of the movie has a sudden, dissatisfied feel, as if Spielberg really wanted to show you the world being destroyed and the human race destroyed forever, but the studio executives wouldn’t let him.

Bottomline: War of the Worlds is a disappointing movie – it shows you just enough of Spielberg’s talent to make you realise how great a movie this could have been, then devolves into kitschy family drama that feels more like a farce than a truly gripping disaster movie. Watch it, if you want, for entertainment / to pass the time; but don’t expect a true Spielberg film ‘cos you ain’t gonna get it.