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 Post subject: 'War of the Worlds' Shines (Except for the Plot)
PostPosted: Fri Jul 15, 2005 7:17 pm 
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Martian War Lord

Joined: Wed Jan 12, 2005 7:01 pm
Posts: 1259
Location: UK
MOVIE: War of the Worlds
DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg
STARING: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins
RATING: 7 out of 10
(PG-13; 116 min)

"Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful mess." -Sergeant Horvath, "Saving Private Ryan"

Some of us (well, me, certainly) let out a groan at that line - so utterly implausible and touchy-feely from a gruff World War 2 sergeant. It felt like Steven Spielberg trying to assure us that he wasn't a jingoist. "The one decent thing"? Mmm . . . defeating Hitler? ending the Holocaust? freeing Western Europe? Easiest just to chalk up the line to a mistake - Thoroughly Modern Stevie tipping his hand.

But now he's made a whole movie that suggests he really believes that tripe, the contemporary "nihilism-with-a-smiling-humane-face." His version of "War of the Worlds," starring Tom Cruise as Absent Daddy who learns how to love. While the world is destroyed around him. The basic premise comes from HG Wells's late-Victorian novel, but not much more than that. It's mostly Spielberg, Tom Cruise, and Industrial Light and Magic.

The movie begins interestingly, with Cruise playing a working-class version of his basic "hot shot" Maverick role, big toothy grin and all.

As he drives his old hot rod home from work on the docks, swerving in an out of lanes and ignoring signs, you can almost hear Kenny Loggins sing "Danger Zone." But this image is quickly undermined. Turns out Maverick married Kelly McGillis (played by Mirando Otto here) and they had two children, but he was a terrible family man (quelle surprise).

She left him for a much more solid, dependable man, by whom she is in now her sixth or seventh month, and is dropping the elder kids (played by Dakota Fanning, about 10, and Justin Chatwin, about 15) off for Weekend at Dad's. They of course don't want to leave Good Dad's SUV or speak to Bad Dad, whose apartment is a pigsty and who has no food in the house so they have to call in delivery for some hummus and pita. It's a bit overdetermined, but there's one scene of Dad and son throwing a baseball where the subtext is as poisonous as an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama.

Then the aliens come.

Scene after scene, shot after shot, "War of the Worlds" never is less than a formal and stylistic marvel - masterly in every detail of technique and directorial acumen. My inner-12-year-old fanboy, who loves to see splosions and stuff blowed up good, will not have a better time at the movies this year. And the first hour of the film is as convincing a portrayal of social disintegration as you'll ever see.

It's not just that the special effects are seamless (though they are) but that Spielberg knows how to frame a shot to make the best use of them. For example, there is a shot in which Cruise gets up from his wife's luxe basement and the camera pans slowly out and we see more and more wreckage until it becomes clear we're in the middle of a plane-crash. It truly deserves comparison with the similar pan-out in "Gone With the Wind" of Vivian Leigh in the Atlanta railyard. This is typical of Spielberg's specifically visual and aural withholding of information, a technique that makes him the greatest manipulator of audience emotions since Alfred Hitchcock (another master at dishing out details for maximum effect). The most memorable, and cleverest shot involves a train and a railroad crossing. I will say no more beyond noting that it's at first a sign of hope and civilization. And then not. Without ever cheating or going back on anything - it's all in how the details are parceled out. The sack of the family's vehicle is as brilliant a "man in the state of nature" scene as ever been made (I'll never forget a half-second flash of a man slicing up his hand on broken glass to reach inside in desperation).

The film overflows with brilliant and memorable images. A church gets sliced apart as cleanly and neatly as a piece of bread. The first intimations of the aliens are weird weather and sinkhole-like cracks in the Earth - superb suspense-builders. Blood-red tentacles spread over the universe like crab grass - imagine the little red coat in "Schindler's List," only a million times over until it becomes Spielberg's sick-joke on Thomas Jefferson's "From time to time, the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots." Spielberg recycles another of his greatest hits -- the Velociraptors-in-the-kitchen set piece from "Jurassic Park." But dagnab it, it still works, particularly with the addition of a vigilante survivalist (Tim Robbins).

And it's not all mere spectacular fireworks as though Spielberg doesn't know that sometimes less is more. The most personally violent thing Cruise does in the movie happens behind closed doors. The most memorable line in the movie for me - "are we still alive?" - is said to a deathly pitch-black screen.

Everything about the movie is superb. Except for the scenes where people say something other than HOLY CRAP!!! ALIENS!!! GET ME OUTTA HERE!!!

Spielberg plunks in the middle of this awesome, stylized and completely realistic spectacle perhaps the most banal, derivative, soapy, overdone, self-indulgent, hit-you-over-the-head version of his perpetual "Absent Daddy Grows Up" scenario. And his cluelessness grates. If ever some academic wants to write the tome "Bumbling Dads: Images of Male Incompetence in Post-Feminism Cinema," this movie would be a virtual summa of examples - the highlight [sic] being the daughter has been allergic to peanut butter "since birth" and Bad Dad doesn't know it. The movie also has the most priceless bad line I have seen this year. Dad and Son are out in the middle of nowhere after New York has been destroyed and as he's trying to get up to Boston to unite the family. What does Son say? "You're only doing this so you can dump us on Mom. Just like always."

Exqueeze me? Baking powder? This sort of line just turns the whole family into the narcissistic squabbling of Small Beings while the world is ending. Even if (unlike me) you don't dislike this Dumb Dad theme in itself or think it done ham-fistedly here, surely it's rather massively outscaled by ... um ... THE END OF THE WORLD!!! And surely complaining that THE END OF THE WORLD!!! is Daddy's latest screwup is a bit . . . much. Some wag dissed "Pearl Harbor" as "the Japanese send a fleet of ships to bomb a love triangle." Here, it's "the aliens send a fleet of ships to zap Daddy's custody weekend." In the broadest sense, "War of the Worlds" is a daddy's redemption tale. But you still want to slap Spielberg -- jeezbud, get over yourself. So your daddy didn't hug you enough, but you think he might have if the Martians had invaded Phoenix in the 1950s? Steven Spielberg's father might be the movies' most influential creditless human being, right after whatever policeman it was who locked up a young Alfred Hitchcock.

It's not that it's impossible to tell an "end of the world" or "aliens invade" story that focuses on a small group -- Michael Haneke's "Time of the Wolf" and M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" come quickly to mind. But they're also instructive -- perhaps the "end of the world" forces choices on the director. Haneke's film (4th capsule) was brilliant when it was following one family and became less so as its scope broadened. Shyamalan hardly left that farmhouse (and never the small town). Haneke simply did not have the budget for A State-of-the-Art Apocalypse; Shyamalan had more money, but basically kept the aliens offstage except in TV and radio flashes until almost the very end. But this very minimalism in the matter of Alien Spectacle meant these films could contain effectively The Family Under Stress premise, concentrate on the family dynamics, and pull off their quasi-religious visions of the soul of men. There wasn't the . . . well, distraction of seeing whole cities in rubble, people being killed left, right and center.

In other words, the family focus works when you're not really SEEING the world ending. But when it's the reverse, it's impossible to think the problems of three little people amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Spielberg, with as much money as he wants and technical skills to make anything happen, gives us that destruction and crazy world better than anybody could. But I'm not sure he realizes that it's at cross-purposes with what passes for the film's dramatic arc - Dad redeeming himself in Mom's eyes by dropping the kids off in time so as not to violate the terms of the court-ordered visitation. It's as if he thinks that someday we might look back on this and decide that uniting the Ferrier family was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful mess.

Victor Morton is deputy national editor at the Washington Times and intermittently maintains his personal film blog Rightwing Film Geek.


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