Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2005 10:56 pm 
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Sound and fury

War of the Worlds is largely a reversion to a Fifties Sci-Fi scare movie, with far more splendid and real-looking effects but less of a worldview or point than those earlier things had. The effects are terrific, but the conceptions are no advance, perhaps even a regression. These silly pod creatures, with their various pod-offspring or excrescences, that all wither away like the aliens at the end of Shyamalan's Signs -- allergic to terrestrial microorganisms instead of H2O -- if they're such superior beings, how come they have to go out and mow down humans one by one? To scare us in an old-fashioned way, must be the answer. But there is no time allowed to speculate as to their purpose (other than extermination) since all Tom Cruise and his two children do is flee -- to mama. But to get back to the creatures on vast spindly stilts: if they're so menacing and powerful, why can't they find three people in a basement (where Tim Robbins helps provide the movie's most tedious minutes)? The screenplay of War of the Worlds is contemptible, and needless to say whatever points H.G. Wells was making have been dropped. But the effects, especially in the big crowd scenes and when some New Jersey streets are crumbling, are real-looking and awesome. Some of the simple desperation of cheaper, but more human recent end-of-the-world movies like Michael Haneke's recent Hour of the Wolf is evoked as Cruise's son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) are almost whisked away in a darkened field and a crowd struggles to get onto a ferryboat. The end is as lame as that of Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow's, whose trajectory it much resembles: going home to mama resolves the problem of a wrecked planet.

Spielberg has always used children, sometimes in heartrending, sometimes in purely manipulative ways. This time he begins with a divorced couple with shared custody and a contrast of class and attitude. Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a surly construction worker, macho and uncooperative on the job, unable to bother with his little girl and young teenage son who're deposited with him on weekends by his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), who's off to her parents' in Boston. The world erupts when freak electric storms herald an invasion of monsters out of the earth which destroy much -- but not all! -- around the holes they emerge from with horrific blasts of sound. So Ray and the two kids don't have to decide how to spend the weekend. They go on an expedition -- in (wonder of wonders) the only car for miles around that runs after the storms (it was the solenoids--smart Ray to think of it!) -- first to the big McMansion Mary Ann occupies with her new husband in a posh suburb, then when that turns into a war zone overnight, on to grandpa and grandma's place in Boston. Heroically inclined Robbie runs off in a field -- presumably to join the army at fourteen -- but is at the grandparents when Ray gets there: wonder of wonders! Little Rachel (perhaps the braver of the two) stays to weather Tim Robbins' dialogue in that dank basement.

Tom Cruise hasn't had a good role other than Collateral's nihilist hit man -- which was a very good one, in a beautifully crafted movie -- in years. In War of the Worlds, he's been accused of sentimentalizing his character, playing for our sympathy when he began as a prick. This is a misreading of the screenplay, which has this quite natural progress toward caring for his kids built into it; this isn't Cruise's betrayal of his role. He's okay, but he has nothing to deal with. He hardly deserves credit for not hamming it up. It's not a sure thing that he knows how to ham it up. Dakota Fanning is excellent. She takes us through a lot of emotions the action calls for that the movie would lack without her. The kitsch pseudo-ecological thinking behind The Day After Tomorrow looks like Newton and Einstein next to Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

Still, Spielberg provides entertainment and some state-of-the-art thrills with his awesome effects, not so much the monsters and their reaching tentacles and insect bodies and faces, which we have seen too often before, as with the cracking up of streets and falling down of buildings, and some splendid devastation, notably the wreckage of houses and cars and airplanes outside Miranda Otto's McMansion, and for the manipulation of crowds, especially around the ferry landing.

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