Film — War of the Worlds (PG-13)

 

By Amy Diaz

People of the earth play the bug to the windshield that is an army of mean aliens in the popcorntastic War of the Worlds.

Director Steven Spielberg does not get in his own way in this movie, which is surprising. It’s been a while since he stopped trying to out-Spielberg himself in every movie and just made a big, enthusiastic science-fiction film that is meant to be adventurous and exciting and a good time for the audience.

Perhaps it helps that for all of the updates and tinkering of this film — specifically of the lead character, which isn’t a scientist but a schlubby blue-collar guy trying to make up for being just a weekend dad to his kids — the movie opens with author HG Wells’ own words about an alien civilization who decides it’s time to make use of the blue planet. No metaphors, no messages (well, not right away) — the movie begins with a shot of Earth and the warning that the aliens cometh.

The story starts with Ray (Tom Cruise), the aforementioned schlub. Just getting off a shift at the docks, he heads home to meet his kids. Like the family in ET, these kids live with mom and have an absent dad. Unlike the ET kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) have a good life with their happily remarried mom and well-to-do stepfather. It’s their dad, who they see on weekends, who’s sort of a wreck. A messy house, an air of irresponsibility — Ray’s got absent father written all over him. And the kids aren’t exactly overjoyed to hang out with him — Robbie informs him that he hates visiting his dad and promptly steals the car. But quickly, thankfully, this domestic drama takes a back seat to lightning storms which knock out power and make unusable just about every car (lucky for Ray, his mechanic friends take his advice when it comes to fixing a minivan). Ray happens to be out on the street when the anxious but still not panicking crowd hears rumbling from beneath the street. A tremor cracks the street, shatters windows and destabilizes buildings. Suddenly, metal begins to push to the surface and a giant tripod pulls itself up, makes a horrific noise and starts blasting.

Pretty much the rest of the movie is all chase. After seeing the giant walkers (reminiscent of but sleeker than the Imperial monsters in Empire Strikes Back) reduce his neighbors and neighborhood to ash, Ray grabs his kids and the conveniently working car and high-tails it. To where? To the movie’s credit, the bit of actual acting it does require Cruise to do involves him acting like something of an ass. When the family runs, they run to the kids’ mom — in part, we suspect, because Ray needs a grown-up to tell him what to do and how to comfort his kids.  Of course mom’s going to be hard to find, what with her having gone to Boston and the kids stuck somewhere in the New York area. Also, Ray isn’t entirely sure his ex-wife is alive or that he’ll be able to keep his kids alive long enough to find her if she has survived. The movie actually goes out of its way not to make a hero of Ray too soon and give Robbie a chance to be brave and selfless long before it gives Ray that opportunity. He tromps around the area, driving and then hiking with his kids through New York and, Connecticut and on the road to Boston. Along the way, we get to see civilization dissolve, from the perplexed onlookers on the still-normal street in Ray’s neighborhood to the shot of a Boston in flames and protected only by a beleaguered military.

The movie makes its biggest star Panic — from Dakota Fanning’s near-ceaseless screaming to the masses of people that trample over each other in an attempt to escape the beam of the tripods. Panic — sheer, animalistic, wide-eyed panic — gives the movie its edge, its urgency. Even the aliens, when we finally get a look at them about 30 minutes from the movie’s end, take a back seat to panic. The aliens, in fact, are not scary. It’s the havoc they create, the complete chaos into which they throw every facet of daily life that makes them worthy of so much shrieking.

Ultimately, War of the Worlds is just about aliens attacking and one family running. It’s standard Spielberg to go this intimate with catastrophe — after all, Jurassic Park was much more about children running from dinosaurs than it was about the scientists who created them. The movie is a throwback to the 1970s in its gritty look — Spielberg makes excellent use of CGI so that even the most, well, alien weapons seem as deadly, as real and as frightening as the gun that the skittish Ray sticks in his waistband — and in its slightly dark and pessimistic tone. This isn’t the triumphant “U.S.A!”-cheering band of invasion-fighters from Independence Day. This is a post-Sept. 11 (ah, yes, well, you knew I had to bring it up) landscape of people who are freaked out and quick to suspect the worst. The movie keeps us from knowing too much more than that everyone’s probably going to die, thus heightening the desperation and helplessness that serves as so much of the movie’s backdrop. Spielberg does not allow us to learn about the alien civilization and what it wants, he doesn’t allow us to reason with it or brainstorm with the scientists. We are not the solution, we are the hysteria. And Spielberg, manipulative, slightly sadistic tormentor that he is, just toys with us to keep the tension going.

That’s right, we’re now the fleeing Japanese and Spielberg is our Godzilla.

 
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