War of the Worlds is so impressive in so many ways that it makes the frustration over its miserable final moments that much harder to bear. It’s as if the post-Schindler’s List Spielberg suddenly transformed in the Worlds’ final minutes into the cheesy 1989-era Spielberg of Always. What a shame considering the genius side of this director lays the groundwork for this movie. There are snippets from various Spielberg movies evoked all through War of the Worlds: It’s got the child-parent dynamic of E.T. set against the mass hysteria scenes of Close Encounters and Schindler’s List, suspense setpieces lifted straight out of Jurassic Park (The snake-like probes invading the cellar have an eerie resemblance to the raptors stalking the kitchen in Park, am I right?). But the most devastating and heart-wrenchingly brilliant aspect of Spielberg (especially since Schindler’s) has been the manner in which he humanizes violence. He’s got a masterful way of undercutting the spectacle of violence by foregrounding the real human suffering involved in the crossfire of violence. Saving Private Ryan was, in this regard, a miraculous work. Spielberg can stage a brilliantly crafted action sequence but, all the while, he will force us to ponder the human toll of the acts being committed. I am in awe of his ability to do this. It is exactly the way violence must be depicted, especially in a medium that treats violent acts so casually and amorally.
To be fair, Spielberg has never traded in mindless spectacle (with the exception of the hideous Temple of Doom installment of Indiana Jones and, to a lesser degree, 1941). For him, spectacle can only be justified when it’s from the point-of-view of a relatable and sympathetic character. In War of the Worlds, we watch as a whole community of average human beings are faced with and mercilessly destroyed by an alien legion wielding death rays. Unlike subhuman garbage like Independence Day or any in the barrage of “spectacle”-heavy alien invasion/disaster films of the last 20 years, this movie knows that spectacle in and of itself is pointless, nothing but a bludgeoning device meant to elicit some sort of submissive awe from the lemmings in the audience. Not this movie, though. Spielberg’s movie is truly character-driven, not effects-driven. Indeed, it’s actually very restrained in the latter regard. There is one scene in which a battle between the alien tripods and the missile-wielding copters and tanks is kept off-screen, just over a ridge. We only hear and see hints of it followed by the after-effects of the fight (a soldier screams into his radio–”No effect!”–and we see army vehicles come barreling back over the ridge…in flames!) This is the stuff of pure cinema! Ditto the train engulfed in flames as it hurtles across the screen in full view of a group of horrified survivors, the wreckage of the crashed airliner and the deracinated, crimson-hued landscape that Ray (played by Tom Cruise) eventually happens upon. In each scene, we are left to extrapolate what just happened–without availing of the action just perpetrated. For one thing, Ray wasn’t there to witness it, only there to witness the aftermath. And we’re left to look on with him and ponder the movie’s themes of the moral costs of violence, the preciousness of life and nature, and the need for a community to rally against forces that do not nurture such values.
One of the greatest images in movies released in my lifetime is in War of the Worlds. It takes place during the scene in which panic-stricken survivors are clambering aboard a ferry, trying to get past the barricade of soldiers keeping them at bay. Then, they hear that heart-stopping siren (that two-note baritone battle call that the alien tripods emit each time they’re about to attack). They turn around–and Spielberg cuts to the reverse shot. And there it is, in an extreme wide shot–the image of an alien tripod looming over a hill not far from the landing in the foreground where passengers are struggling to save themselves. It’s a horrific image–straight out of a nightmare, primal and unsparing, and you know that there is no turning back or hedging. Spielberg doesn’t flinch from these scenes, he shows death and destruction in all their fury and tragedy. Also, I have to commend Cruise’s performance (yes, he’s an insane Scientologist, but he’s also a very shrewd and hard-working actor). His dockworker, Ray, feels completely believable, the working-class milieu that Spielberg portrays feels spot-on, and Ray’s relationship with his alienated children, Rachel (Fanning) and Robbie (Chatwin), are convincing as well. Spielberg shrewdly references memories of 9/11 as well: The bulletin boards cluttered with pictures of the missing, for instance, and the hysteria and desperation palpable in the faces of everyone on screen, not to mention the scale of the violence itself.
This then leads to the great and shattering disappointment that awaits us as we near the end of War of the Worlds. I have several problems: Ray is spared the cost that so many others in this movie suffer, namely to lose a loved one in a time of crisis, and Spielberg’s exempting Ray from the take-no-prisoners storytelling that came before it feels false, a cheat. It was as if another, lesser director took over in the Worlds’ final act, as if Spielberg suddenly felt impatient and uncertain about how to end this movie, ever eager to please his lowest common denominator audience. He should’ve known that staying truthful to the tone and themes (the costs of defending your community), rather than capitulating with sentiment, is how you win over your audience. As the credits rolled, I had to hide my head in my hands.
Also, why is it that an alien intelligence that’s supposedly kept its eyes trained on Earth for a million years couldn’t anticipate the bacteria factor? I realize this is how H.G. Wells’ story wraps up. But for it to have worked here, Spielberg and his scribes (big-budget machine David Koepp and this other guy) had to then infuse the theme of “germs” all throughout their story, rather than have it suggested arbitrarily in their movie’s climax. More crucially, why is it that the aliens waited so long to launch their attack? What was the point when they were a superior intelligence and killing force all along? Why not attack humanity when they were not so equipped with such lethal weapons? Also, why bother with death rays when a nuclear bomb can wipe out hundreds of thousands in a single blast? (Again, this last was a nod to Wells’ story, I understand, but it just doesn’t make sense anymore in the context of a total takeover and annihilation.) Easy answers are, sadly, all it would’ve taken to fix what are debilitating problems in an otherwise masterful exercise in humanist sci-fi moviemaking.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Josh Friedman, David Koepp
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins