Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"War of the Worlds" Hits Us Where We Live


directed by Steven Spielberg
starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, various others, incl. brief cameo by Miranda Otto

It’s hard to believe that nearly four years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001. Time enough for pop culture to feel the imprint of that defining event, as it has, in ways both subtle and not so subtle. Yet curiously enough, “War of the Worlds” is the first movie I’ve seen that struck me as a starkly, forthrightly, and unmistakably post-9/11 movie. That’s perhaps only fitting. H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” may be a timeless classic, but like all of Wells’s work, it also reflected a certain fin-de-siècle malaise about the course and consequences of British imperialism. Spielberg’s adaptation, for better or for worse, bears the indelible stamp of *our* times. Different century, different anxieties.

Obviously, that’s not how the movie’s being sold. “War of the Worlds” is better known, after all, as the daddy of all alien invasion stories. Simply put, aliens take over the planet, and all of humankind’s might and ingenuity prove no match for their pitiless power. That’s Wells; the rest is Spielberg and the screenwriters, who manufacture a smaller focal narrative out of the trials of one family. Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise, with a difference—it’s the trademark Tom Cruise character on the verge of a mid-life crisis, his cockiness worn down to the brittlest of veneers. His name is Ray, and he’s a New Jersey dockworker with little to show for his life but a squalid apartment, an empty refrigerator, and weekend custody of two kids, products of a failed marriage. The latter turn up early on and quickly establish their archetypes: the surly, rebellious teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and the precocious wise child (Dakota Fanning). The lovely Miranda Otto (Eowyn from “Lord of the Rings”) appears briefly as Ray’s ex-wife, who’s long since moved on to a more prosperous marriage. There are broad hints that Ray married out of his class, but this isn’t really developed. More immediate concerns are at hand.

For the arrival of the children coincides with troubling cosmic signs that something wicked is this way a-comin’. First come the violent lightning storms and winds that obey no known meteorological patterns, followed by massive power outages that knock out all cars, lights, cell phones, and backup generators within a generous radius. Then—all hell breaks loose. Few directors equal Spielberg when it comes to building up suspense and fear of the unseen, and he certainly doesn’t fail to deliver here. But what’s most striking about “War of the Worlds” is not the buildup but the unsparing carnage that floods the screen when the invisible threat finally materializes. Bodies incinerating around Ray as he runs through the streets (avoiding, with typical movie-star luck, the deadly ray-guns); bodies swept along a river’s current, past the horrified saucer eyes of Ray’s daughter; bodies being piked and harvested for their blood by the unseen aliens. None of it is graphic enough to earn an R rating from the MPAA, but it’s certainly intense and suggestive enough to paint a grim landscape of chaos and death.

The visual imagery is vivid and powerful, but at some point the story doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Ray and progeny manage to procure what appears to be the one working car in all of New Jersey, and drive like mad for Boston, in search of mommy and her family. Along the way, the car gets hijacked by a fleeing mob (a gripping, if manipulative, scene) and the party proceeds on foot. They try to cross the Hudson, and end up reenacting “Titanic” on a small scale. Giant alien-bearing tripods dog their footsteps, leaving a trail of mayhem behind them. Faced with such terrors, the teenage son veers between inconsequential bickering and an inexplicable kamikaze urge to take on the tripods. Dakota Fanning, somewhat more sensibly, screams a lot (and I do mean a lot).

And so, with nowhere left to go, we drop in on Tim Robbins, lurking in a basement—which can never be a good sign. For many, this is the point at which “War of the Worlds” completely loses its direction. To some extent, I agree, yet I also found the detour oddly intriguing. Robbins, as the haggard-eyed, not-quite-there Ogilvy, who’s lost his own family to the aliens, shows a different version of Ray’s son’s madness: the impulse not to escape but to make a stand, or at least a bunker. Faster than you can say “doppelganger,” the movie pits Ray’s brand of survivalism against Ogilvy’s—and I’m giving nothing away by revealing that only one emerges intact. What’s unexpected is the grim, terse, flatly amoral manner in which the conflict is resolved. The most interesting moment in the movie is something that happens out of our sight, with a little girl’s face as the most immediately visible reflection of what’s going on behind the closed door.

But as in other recent films (“Minority Report” comes to mind) Spielberg flirts with darkness only to retreat, without following it through or commenting on it in any way. Not long after the cellar episode, the movie sputters to an anticlimactic halt—though this is largely owing to its faithfulness to Wells's text—followed by a pure Spielbergian coda. Though, in all honesty, there’s something comforting, if not exactly inspiring, about knowing that Spielberg is incapable of ending his movies on anything resembling a nihilistic note. And ultimately, it’s not the pillowy ending that prevents “War of the Worlds” from being top-drawer Spielberg. Rather, it’s the lazy retread of old tricks from Spielberg’s oeuvre (the cat-and-mouse sequences in the cellar, for example, are a direct rip of the much more effective raptors-in-kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park”), as well as other ho-hum movie conventions (why, for instance, do aliens, even scary ones, have to be vaguely anthropomorphic?), and the rather limp broken-family dynamic that Spielberg’s captured far more convincingly in other films.

Nonetheless, for all its faults, “War of the Worlds” has a relevance that most other blockbuster films these days can only dream of. And I’m not just referring to the movie’s use of 9/11 imagery, though that is hard to miss: Ray, returning to his home after the first attack, finds himself covered in gray ash, remnants of the unspeakable; later, as he flees north with his offspring, we see walls and bulletin boards filled with photographs of missing loved ones and “Have you seen?” postings. Beyond this, however, is the sense that what we’re seeing is the dramatization of our subconscious paranoia from the past four years: a nightmarish magnification of the threat that lurks unseen, and previously unsuspected, among us, embedded in our most familiar neighborhoods, finally erupting from (literally) beneath our feet. The scariest thing about the aliens is the fact that, as the tagline goes, “they’re already here,” and have *been* here for years, building their forces and biding their time. Sleeper cells are nothing to this, but the resonance is palpable. The greatest fear, the one that haunts us today, comes simultaneously from without *and* within.

RATING: ** 1/2


Post a Comment

<< Home