War of the Worlds (2005)
Rated: PG-13 :: Released: 27 June 2005
Director: Steven Spielberg :: Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins
By Michael David Sims
27 June 2005 — I wasn't sure what to expect going into War of the Worlds. For the most part I think Tom Cruise is overrated as an actor (though I thoroughly enjoyed his performances in Collateral and Magnolia, and Mission: Impossible is a guilty pleasure of mine), and I haven't seen a Steven Spielberg directed film since Saving Private Ryan (though I did happen to catch part of Artificial Intelligence on HBO once). Couple that with my general distaste for disaster films, and it's a surprise I even bothered to drop the cash on this one.
That said, I wasn't totally disappointed with the picture. On the other hand, I wasn't blown away either. With two of the biggest names in Hollywood attached and a hype machine that rivals that of Revenge of the Sith, one would have expected better. Instead we were "treated" to a so-so story about a working-class father who's painfully out of touch with his two children, but has to set all that aside in order to save them during what appears to be the end of the world.
In that regard, the film succeeded. The tension between Ray (Cruise) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is felt from the moment they first interact, and builds from there despite Ray's best efforts to bond with the boy. The reason for this, however, is poorly defined. We're just supposed to accept that the two men don't see eye to eye and watch as their relationship falls further and further into ruin.
On one hand I like this because it establishes that these characters had lives that predate the opening credits. Conversely, it would help us feel for the characters more if we knew what caused this rift; Robbie claims it's Ray's selfishness, but this holds little water. If Ray were truly selfish, he would have worked an extra shift at the docks after his foreman asked (for the cash, you see). If he were truly selfish, he wouldn't have rushed home to meet his ex-wife and greet his ungrateful kids. If he were truly selfish, he wouldn't have offered to play catch with his bitchy son. But Robbie sees none of this, instead opting to piss on his father at every turn. A better definition of the anger would have proven the young man right and forced the father to reflect on his actions, but that's not the case. Still, the strain is so thick and sour that it can be tasted.
Then there's Rachel (Dakota Fanning). At times she's wise beyond her years ("You'll never reach [Robbie] that way.") and can be as big a smartass as her older onscreen brother ("I'm allergic to peanut butter." "Since when?" "Birth."), but then she reverts back into little girl mode and rightfully freaks out once the shit hits the fan. While some would fault the young actress for this — claiming she often acts too mature for her age — I'm inclined to blame the inconsistency on the script, if only because she's actually quite deft at playing whatever role is thrown her way... no matter how conflicting the script might make it. When she needs to cry and scream and asks, "Is it the terrorists," your heart wrenches. When she plays the advice-giving mother that both the men (or boys, as it may be) in her life need, you come to sense that this little girl is truly wise beyond her years. When she yells at Robbie and pounds on his thighs, you come to understand how much she loves him and how he serves as her father more than Ray does. In that regard, Fanning is probably the best performer throughout the film — despite the inconsistent role she was handed.
Speaking of inconsistencies, there are the aliens themselves. When they first emerge from the ground in giant, tripod walkers (masterfully CG'ed to the point that they looked all too real and caused many audience members to gasp), they're first content to blast everyone in sight (one-by-one, mind you) with white-blue lasers that leave nothing but ashes and fluttering clothing behind. As the film progresses, however, the helpless humans are scooped up (again, individually) and collected into metal baskets for termination at a later point — either by impalement or by being devoured. Both deaths seemingly feed the machines with our blood — maybe as a fuel or food or something else entirely — but to what end is never explained. Then again, maybe our bodily fluids aren't needed and are simply sprayed into the air to layer the atmosphere in a foreboding red haze.
That aside, why the machines first choose to blast and then devour us seems only to serve the ending. Frankly, there is no need to cull us for extermination when one blast from the laser does the trick. Having said that, I must call the alien technology into question.
First, why are we being killed one-by-one? Do they not have a laser that can blast dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people at a time? Second, if they are so far advanced, how is it that hiding in the shadows and underground can mask our presence? Are we to believe that these destroyers of worlds do not have night- and/or ThermalVision? Third, it is suggested that the tripods have been buried on Earth for a million years, since before man — so I find it quite surprising that in the million years since, the Martian (and I use the term loosely, since they are never said to be from Mars) technology hasn't improved to the point where they could send something akin to the Death Star. Or at least something that could kill more than two people at once... and see past the shadows. (And even if they weren't buried a million years ago or even ten thousand, the fact remains that their tech should have advanced beyond the fantastical tripods that birthed themselves from underneath the pavement and soil.)
And this whole idea that the Martian tech was buried here some time ago doesn't sit well with me either. Though an exact number is never given, there are at the very least hundreds of these tripod walkers stalking the Earth... all of which were always here, buried under our cities and farms and open land. How convenient it is then that during all of our excavating and city planning one of these monstrosities was never discovered.
While I can accept that some commonsense has to be set aside during science fiction movies, I just can't ignore something along those lines. What I also can't ignore is how often a pathway opens up for Ray's illegally procured van and how often it goes unscathed. We know why said van is running whilst every other vehicle is not, but the fact that every other car stalled without damming the roads is preposterous. And then when a plane crashes and destroys every house and car in an upper-class neighborhood, Ray's van goes undamaged... despite the fact that the hulking engine is mere inches away. A passerby would have to assume that the van was parked there after the crash and not the preceding night. It's just too damn convenient.
As is Ogilvy's (Tim Robbins) introduction. The panic-stricken run wildly past his farmhouse while he stands there waving his shotgun high in the air. The only two people he beckons are Ray and Rachel (Robbie, in another unexplained bit of "character development", runs off to assist the fighting forces... just because), leaving everyone else at the mercy of the machines. His goal is to start an underground movement against the aliens, entrenching themselves for months (maybe even years) before rising up from the soil and attacking in the same fashion as their executioners. While that plan is solid (every war needs a resistance, after all), why he only invites Ray and his daughter to join seems senseless. Some could write it off as Ogilvy's unfocused lunacy (is there such a thing as "focused lunacy"?), but I opt to call it poor writing and saving the stars... which is something that happens twice.
People banding together to save the stars because they are the stars breaches the fourth wall. It's as if the other characters (RE: extras) know that these two (RE: stars) are important somehow and must put themselves in harm's way to save them, despite the fact that they idly watched as other characters (RE: more extras) were slaughtered before their eyes moments before. Again, inconsistency for the sake of convenience.
Normally this wouldn't rattle me all that much and I'd wave it off, but this is Steven Spielberg we're talking about here. The man is a genius and is capable of crapping out better movies than nearly everyone else, so it's quite sad to see his name attached to something so utterly lackluster.
All that said, I stick by my earlier statement: while I wasn't totally disappointed with the picture, I wasn't blown away either. The dynamic between Ray and Robbie rings true to these ears, Fanning's acting tops that of the veteran Cruise (who I will admit did a decent job) and the computer generated effects are quite possibly the best I've seen to date. (The fact that the sight of all the Martian tripods caused me to suffer a mild panic attack tells me they appeared to be that realistic.) However, there are simply way too many inconsistencies and convenient moments, the story itself is basically nonexistent and the ending reeks of post-test audience alterations.
Stars: 3 of 5