Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

War of the Worlds

Year: 2005
Running time: 116 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Josh Friedman, David Koepp
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins

No escape.
The cheesy 1953 adaptation of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds was one of my very favourite movies growing up. I reckon I must have watched it 100 times or more. It's been said, not entirely without justification, that I have a bit of a hard-on for Steven Spielberg. But now here he is updating one of my most treasured childhood memories. This, then, would be a real test. Would he ruin everything? Turns out he wouldn't, and my accusers can continue to accuse.

Although Spielberg is well known for films involving aliens, until he made this remake his visitors from the stars were benevolent and friendly. All that changed with War of the Worlds. These aliens are certainly not here to return missing navel officers or to retrieve a lonely family member left behind. These guys want our planet, and they want it bad. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Spielberg movie if it didn’t have an average family unit at its heart. Here, Tom Cruise is blue-collar regular Joe Ray Farrier, who is having his kids to stay over the weekend. He's not dad of the year, but then who is when you get right down to it? He's separated from the mother of his children Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), and while his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is resentful, his younger daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) still has a soft spot for him. So far, so standard broken family unit.

Ray runs for his life as the chaos begins.
During the weekend a very odd storm hits. Right from the off, this is disconcerting stuff; the striking sound effects accompanying each lightning strike feel like a punch to the heart. The tension is there from the beginning and only cranks up as the story progresses. Soon after the lightning strikes, gigantic three-legged machines erupt from the ground and start laying waste to all around them. There is a real sense of there being no escape from the marauding tripods, and Spielberg frames the action in a way that makes you feel the terror right alongside the characters. There is spectacle, and much of it, but the film is never afraid to leave huge events off screen if Ray and his kids aren't witnessing them directly - take for example the moments that leave them cowering in a basement while all hell breaks loose outside. The next morning, when all is quiet, they leave the basement only to find the neighbourhood destroyed and the wreckage of a plane spread all over. It makes the reveal of the destruction all the more effective and the way we never leave the central characters' sides serves to amp up the tension that bit further. Spielberg may be an old hand at this type of cinematic thrill ride, but he really can pull this stuff off like no-one else.

The most affecting scenes, however, tend to come when there are no aliens at all. Take for example, the scene shortly after the opening attack, which Ray narrowly survived. He notices in the mirror that he is covered in dust, and then slowly penetrating his shock is the realisation of what the dust is, or used to be, causing a suddenly desperate need to get it off him. There is also the horrific scene when Rachel witnesses the debris of corpses floating down the river. As Rachel, Dakota Fanning spends much of the film screaming, shouting or running, but during these quieter-but-nastier moments she is terrific.
Horrifying, terrifying, yet so beautifully filmed.
Far worse than these scenes, however, is the moment when our family becomes the victim of fear driving ordinary people to become a dangerous mob. Fighting for the only working car, they almost tear Ray’s daughter from him in their desperate bid to escape. My heart felt like it was literally in my throat. As well as the director doing the thing he does best, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and particularly the cast are on good form, being creditably believable as their world falls apart around them.

If there is a weak link, it is the writing. The machines have supposedly lain dormant underground for many years until the unnatural storm deposits an alien pilot in each of them at a time predetermined by the invaders. There are some problems inherited from H. G. Wells' original classic novel; the three-leg structure, while undoubtedly iconic, is highly impractical, and the fact that this obsessively planned invasion by entities capable of interstellar travel is thwarted because they forgot to consider some rudimentary biology issues. And there is the whole red weed thing (although this gets a pass due to the supreme creepiness of the idea). It seems odd then, that the writers saw fit to introduce even more impracticalities, the primary one being that for some reason the aliens planted a load of machines underground, none of which were discovered, and then go away to wait for ages before unleashing them. Spielberg's expert execution does much to paper over these cracks, but it wouldn't have hurt to have made the writing a little smarter.

Ray and Rachel's short-lived refuge in Ogilvy's basement.
After Ray must let his son leave to take up arms with the military to try to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable machines, he and Rachel find shelter in the basement of paranoid survivor Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Ogilvy has long been driven out of his wits, and is entirely oblivious to the danger he's putting the three of them in when he starts to panic loudly. Murky survival morals set in when Ray gently covers his daughter’s ears and shuts the door to demonstrate exactly what lengths he will go to in order to protect her. The whole subplot within the basement felt tense almost beyond my ability to stand it, and although it deviates from the main story, it serves to ratchet up the claustrophobic terror to almost unbearable levels.

When the end comes, it feels like the first breath you’ve taken since the storm hit at the start, and although Robbie's survival does seem a little too tidy, there's an almost desperate need for this family to be given a chance to fix itself, so I found Spielberg's traditional over-sentimentality very welcome.

Phenomenal, but terrifying.

Score: 8/10

Spielberg's adaptation is generally fairly poorly thought of, but this review by Jake makes a compelling case, finding the film resonates with America's War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. The late Mr Ebert, however, couldn't get past the tripod issue.