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Posted July 14, 2005


"War Of The Worlds"


Rick Mitchell

It takes a real master to show up the pretenders to his title. Just as George Romero's "Land Of The Dead" blows away all the recent zombie films, Steven Spielberg's version of "War Of The Worlds" shows how a real "movie-movie" ought to be done.

I'd had trepidations about this as, ever since Spielberg seems to have decided he wanted to be viewed as a "respectable" filmmaker in the eyes of the East Coast critical establishment, his enthusiasm for the type of film that made him seemed to have waned. Both his "Jurassic Park" films and even "Minority Report" had a by-the-numbers feel, but his more "serious" works like "Schindler's List," "A.I.," and especially "Amistad" also have a schizophrenic quality suggesting he was trying too hard to escape his past.

The opening sequences of "War Of The Worlds" suggest this same problem, but once the aliens manifest themselves, there is a welcome renaissance of the Spielberg of "Jaws" and the Indiana Jones films, an extremely intense compact 75 minutes of pure cinematic suspense and spectacle that lets up only slightly for the film's final 20 minutes. What makes it work is that unlike in most recent films of this sort which are shot and edited in such a confusing manner that most of the time you're lost as to what's happening and whose doing what to whom, though the film is shot 1.85:1 (Spielberg has acknowledged that his vision has narrowed with age), he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have shot largely with wide angle lenses with Spielberg's patented close to wide moves, all which enhance your involvement with the on-screen events.

Tom Cruise And Dakota Fanning

Further enhancing this is the sound (which is LOUD, for those who have a problem with that). Unlike the "noise for noise sake" in so many contemporary action films, here it is organic to the film, the use of stereo helping to pull you into the picture. Sound designer Richard King and his team and re-recording mixers Andy Nelson and Anna Behlmer should have a lock on those Oscars.

More importantly, unlike the seemly animated cartoon inspired CGI shots in most of today's action films, which further enhances their obvious phoniness, Spielberg and Co. stick with setups for the effects shots that logically look like they were photographed with a camera on the scene. This is true of even what is probably the most spectacular shot in the film, a long single take simulating a remote head doing two or three 360s in, out, and around an SUV being driven by Tom Cruise through a mob of people fleeing up a turnpike.

Where the film is a bit of a letdown is in its "book" portion. Spielberg goes back to H.G. Wells' original concept of viewing the events through the eyes of an ordinary person, something that George Pal was not allowed to do by Paramount's then head of production, Don Hartman, a former comedy writer, according to Cinefantastique's retrospect on the 1953 version published in the late Seventies. As is typical with him, Spielberg has chosen to make his hero a New Jersey dock worker with a dysfunctional family. There is a bit too much of this and it gets redundant, particularly when juxtaposed against the larger events; at one point a disagreement between Cruise and his teenage son is stretched almost to the point of laughable absurdity because of the context of its occurrence.

Tom Cruise's recent antics may obscure the quality of his performance. In the early part of the film, Spielberg cuts to close ups of him or shots with him in them for reactions to the events that some may quibble with, but by the middle of the film, one finds oneself searching the crowds for him and his family to see how they're being affected now. I was never down on Cruise as many were before he became "respectable" around the time of "Jerry Maguire," and though he still looks too young to have a 16-year-old son, like Denzel Washington, he is a very cinematic re-actor, one who knows how to use his body language, face, and especially his eyes to convey what his character is feeling with a subtlety that in film has a far greater impact on audiences than any degree of "War And Peace"-length pages of dialog or Methodical scenery mastication.

Tim Robbins And Tom Cruise

Of the other actors, Dakota Fanning is okay as long as she isn't screaming; unfortunately there's too much of that though not quite to the point of making you wish the aliens would silence her. There is a one-noteness to the anger of the kid who plays Cruise's son that would be less grating if the reason for it was explained better; it appears to not just be adolescent rebellion against his father. In fact, there is a suggestion that his sensibilities might be closer to those of the character overplayed by Tim Robbins, which tends to veer away from natural into scenery chewing, though not overtly.

There are a few other flaws that strike you when reflecting back on the film. The first alien attack seems to occur within walking distance of Cruise's home yet his kids appear to have heard nothing when he gets back to them. The alien tripods have the usual problem with seemingly very heavy subjects rendered in CGI: the sinuous undulations of the legs still make them look like they're floating in a gravity defying manner despite their apparent bulk. Spielberg's decision to not include any kind of voice from science, which Wells also had, also leaves some unanswered questions, especially since it's implied that the Cruise character seems to have a better idea of what's happening than the other characters. Making him an amateur astronomer or a science-fiction hobbyist, which would be credible even for a New Jersey dockworker today, would have helped sand over some of these story holes.

There are obvious homages to the Pal film, especially toward the end, and Spielberg even manages to work in his fascination with trains in a particularly spectacular manner.

All this aside, "War Of The Worlds" holds its own with both the Pal film and the controversial "Independence Day." If you want a true cinematic experience, it is well worth the time, trouble, and expense of seeing in a theater, especially one with a big screen and good sound system.

Keep watching the screen.

Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.

2005 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved

IMAGES DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures.  All rights reserved




Copyright 2005 From Script To DVD.  All rights reserved.


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