War Of The Worlds
Aliens. Spielberg. Cruise. Disappointment.
Alien invasion movies are a bit thin on the ground these days. Since Independence Day absorbed the world's supply of pyrotechnics and flag-waving nationalism back in the mid 90s, Hollywood has been understandably reluctant to broach the subject again. Now, a decade on, it's taken a number of global terrorist atrocities and Tinseltown's two biggest names to once more grant our abject terror a face, and lo it would appear cinematic xenophobia has come full circle. It's "reds under the bed" all over again, only this time the alien craft might as well have dish towels wrapped around their cockpits. Seems judgemental? Consider Dakota Fanning's (more on whom later) first reaction as the shit hits the fan: "Is it terrorists?"
War Of The Worlds surprises in a number of ways. Although the basic story doesn't deviate much from the source material, it doesn't exactly do what it says on the tin. There's very little "war" here, Spielberg choosing instead to pull that old chestnut of "focusing on the human aspect". What this means is that the movie deals primarily with the efforts of absent father Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) to keep his two estranged children out of harm's way as marauding aliens (no longer from Mars; apparently the chances of that were a million to one...) in tripod-mounted death machines set about atomising pretty much everything in their quest to colonise our favourite planet. For the most part we see little of the invaders, or at least view their rowdy antics from a distance. There's no mention at all of government, and the expected military retaliation is kept to an absolute minimum, viewed only as and when Ray happens to bump into isolated pockets of resistance.
Clearly the intention of this is to channel the viewer's attention toward Team Ferrier: they don't know what's going on and so neither do we. The aim of this game is to have us bond with our trapped human rats through mutual disorientation. This would be all fine and well except for the fact that there's little to like about Ray's kids. Elder sibling Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is the cookie cutter "angry teenager" who generally takes every opportunity to question his father's competence as a role model. "I hate coming here" he spits as Ray makes a woeful attempt to bond via a game of catch. It's hard not to sympathise with Cruise's character when he responds "Is that why you're being such a dick?". Younger sister Rachel (the now omnipresent Dakota Fanning) would be far more endearing if, well, if she weren't being played by a precocious little runt with a face like a hound-chewed boot. Tolerable in Man On Fire, Fanning would appear to now be lapping up the press junket soundbites her elder co-stars see fit to throw at her like so many dog biscuits, and unfortunately her "prodigious talent" is giving way to smug theatrics and pathetic on-demand shrieking that neither works nor endears. I could at this point become easily side-lined into a cheap, expletive-filled attack on a commercially successful moppet, so I'll talk about something else instead.
Unfortunate lack of empathy with Ray's kids aside, there's much to enjoy in the technical aspects of WOW, thanks mostly to the usual, accomplished Cruise/Wagner production design. The big question is of course "are the aliens cool?", to which I can heartily respond in the positive. Those of you old enough (and British enough) to remember the shoddy blue screen antics of the BBC's lamentable Tripods series will be glad to hear that ILM have, as usual, delivered the photo-realistic CG goods. Although the alien pilots are themselves kept largely under wraps, their towering three-legged vehicles are suitably impressive in both design and presence, and the method by which they vapourise hordes of fleeing civilians is particularly gratifying, if suspiciously inefficient.
As undoubtedly delicious as the movie's visuals are, I must at this point pay special mention to the sound design. It's all too easy to forget this aspect of film, or perhaps more accurately it's not often that a particular piece of cinema sticks in your mind for that reason. WOW plays host to some of the best, and most menacing aural work I've heard in a long, long time. While the scoring may be suitably bombastic in a "building muted brass" kind of way, it's the design of the noises made by the alien craft in operation that impress the most. From the foghorn/whale song that announces their arrival to the mechanical menace of their advance and, in particular, the unsettling, rhythmical ambience of unseen machinery performing unknown tasks in the dead of night, the alien technology is as unsettling in it's sound as in it's willingness to instigate wholesale annihilation of the populous.
One area where Spielberg fails to impress as much as you might expect is in his camerawork. To be fair this isn't the end of the world (no pun intended), it's just that with joined-at-the-hip DOP Janusz Kaminsky again doing his thing you might expect a little more. Apparently attempting to live up to his "virtuoso" tag, Spielberg here seems to forget that he's chosen to focus less on action, yet still he looks to find a way to insert his now trademark spectacular camera moves. The most obvious example of this is the director's employment of some totally unnecessary lens swooping during a scene where Ray first escapes with his children down a freeway in one of the few working cars on the road. As he rows with his children the conversation occasionally stops to allow the camera to exit the vehicle, swoop round a few times as it hurtles down the road, and then re-enter the cabin for some more acidic family banter. Clearly this is designed to try and convince you that it's not really an effects shot and that Cruise is actually stunt-driving himself, but considering this illusion is better maintained while the camera remains inside the vehicle, all it represents is some silly showboating that interrupts the flow of conversation and actually removes the audience from the action.
Perhaps most criminal of all is the complete waste of the talent embodied in Tim Robbins. He crops up about halfway through the movie as "survivalist" Harlin Ogilvy and serves only to enforce how serious Ray is about protecting his daughter by inhabiting a character so two-dimensional that screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp ought to themselves be vapourised. Constantly contradicting his own words, Ogilvy harps on endlessly about "waiting until the time is right" and "discovering their weakness" before fighting back against the invaders, yet when a surveillance tentacle enters his basement hideout he immediately decides to set about it with an axe. Hardly the considered counter-attack we were expecting. Still, his loss of constitution upon seeing a fellow survivor liquidised for plant food seems fair enough, and when he begins attempting to "tunnel to the nearest city" you have to wonder why Ray can't just let him get on with it.
It's perhaps understandable that Spielberg has chosen to steer largely clear of FX pyrotechnics on this one. The only improvement to be made to Independence Day's action would be in quality rather than quantity of effects, and so WOW should be applauded for not merely cashing in on spectacle. It's also refreshingly free from the director's usual doses of sentimentality, though unfortunately in this case it might actually have benefited the movie. In choosing to focus on family bonding, Spielberg might have asked better of both his screenwriters and his casting director, for the Ferrier clan are largely unsympathetic and even Cruise struggles to bring much warmth to a figure with whom we are presumably expected to share some empathy.
At the end of the day, WOW isn't a completely lost cause. All the elements are there, it's just that none of them seem to gel completely. What gets at you the most are the obvious things such as an ending that simply peters out and those damn annoying offspring you'd frankly rather see reduced to ash, and it's clear that Spielberg is not in this instance at the top of his game. Still, even the world's greatest directors get to have a bad day now and again, and hopefully the bearded one will be back on form in time for next year's Munich Olympics/nasty terrorist types drama. Just so long as Dakota Fanning is nowhere to be seen I'll wager my hopes a little more on that one.
I award this movie 3 out of 5 Units We Use.
Justin Chatwin (Robbie Ferrier)
Dakota Fanning (Rachel Ferrier)
Tim Robbins (Harlan Ogilvy)