Film review: War of the Worlds


War of the Worlds

Spielberg is such an assured director, it’s always frustrating to see him make decisions which ultimately spoil the impact of his films. Thankfully, he made one fundamentally correct decision when adapting H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—to stick close to the original book. Unfortunately, he made a few bad decisions too, but on the whole the film proves to be one of his most disturbing and powerful works.

A few changes can certainly be forgiven: Spielberg sets his version in contemporary America, where Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a dock worker and failed husband and father, finds himself fleeing with his daughter and son from the implacable alien invaders. I’ve always found Cruise a very average actor (and an annoying human being, but that’s by-the-by), but he does capable work here, and thankfully, apart from one ill-conceived moment, he is given no opportunity for grandstanding. Except perhaps to advertise himself as creative partner with Spielberg, but one suspects that like the rumoured Scientology tent on set, that’s a clause in the standard Cruise contract.

The best acting here is from ten year old Dakota Fanning as Rachel, who is utterly convincing as Ferrier’s daughter. Yes, not surprisingly, Spielberg has injected a family subplot—the father giving all to protect his children and discovering reserves of strength within himself to do so, a story thread that is far too neatly tied up in a bow.

But the real focus here, as it should be, is on the aliens. They are terrifying, huge, (almost) all-powerful and relentless. Humans are ants trying to escape an inevitable extermination. There are genuinely scary moments here, and Spielberg doesn’t sugar-coat the violence, our powerlessness, the loss of life, or what can happen to normal people when survival is at stake. Unfortunately, he does make the mistake of showing the aliens, which drastically reduces their impact. Once we are allowed to humanise the aliens, we are no longer quite so afraid of them, and the point of Wells’ novel, that this was an enemy for which there was no effective human response, is diminished. Certainly if I could have asked one thing of Spielberg it would have been to leave them in their towering machines.

But despite the errors of judgement—the casting of Cruise, showing the aliens, one Cruise hero moment, the neatly tied ‘family’ thread … and a slightly over-long sequence in a basement—the film has a powerful impact, and I came out of the cinema exhausted and drained. This time the changes ultimately do not spoil what is an eternally powerful science-fiction story, and this potent adaptation.

Four tripods out of five.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anaglyph
    Jul 12, 2005 @ 19:13:31

    You neglected to mention the one great thing about having Tom Cruise in the film – that we get to see him get sucked up an alien’s anus. This alone is worth the ticket price.
    But seriously folks, the one major disappointment about Cruise is that he really doesn’t add anything to this film. It is fortunate he doesn’t ruin it either, but you have to speculate on how much better it could have been with a more substantial actor in the role. But a few reservations aside, the film really is such a monumental effort and in my opinion Spielberg’s best.
    And I can’t sign off without mentioning the extraordinary sound design by Richard King and Randy Thom, two of the most accomplished sound designers working in Hollywood today. That Martian klaxon has got to be one of the all-time scariest sounds to make it onto the screen ever.
    For me, four-and-a-half Heat Rays out of five.

  2. UniversalHead
    Jul 12, 2005 @ 19:43:39

    I didn’t want to give it away! 😉
    That klaxon sound WAS amazing – in fact I was sure I had heard it somewhere before; it was like a racial memory of something terrifying, it was so effective. There must be some rampaging elephant or something in there that the primate in us responds to.

  3. Thomas
    Jul 20, 2005 @ 09:11:56

    I’m a big Dakota Fanning fan as well – less of a Cruise fan, especially after seeing the latest public appearances, but I dug the movie. The ending didn’t satisfy me, but Spielberg can offer thrillrides like no other.

  4. UniversalHead
    Jul 20, 2005 @ 12:23:13

    Well, don’t get me started on Cruise and the whole loony bunch of Scientologists! I’m pleased to see that people finally seem to be sitting up and taking notice of his impenetrable nuttiness. I read a biography of L. Ron Hubbard a while back and you would be gobsmacked at what a crazy old conman he was. It’s a particular shame that wackos like Cruise who have bought into the Scientology guff are in a position to influence people.