Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds stars Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier, a working-class guy living in a blue-collar neighborhood. His ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) arrives one afternoon to drop off their children, little Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin), while she and her new husband take a trip to Boston. We immediately sense the tension between Ray and Robbie, although it’s clear that he hasn’t been such a great father to Rachel either.
Not long after the children arrive, a freak storm hits town, repeatedly shooting bolts of lightning at a specific spot in the ground. Ray – along with half the community – goes into the street to investigate. Suddenly the pavement starts to crack and a giant mechanical alien with three legs (known in the film as a “tripod”) emerges from beneath the surface. Some people run in fear, but many can’t take their eyes off the strange creature – until it starts shooting beams that vaporize innocent bystanders. Ray manages to get back home, even as buildings and bridges crumble around him. He and the kids hop in a stolen car and make their way to Mary Ann’s now-empty house. They hide overnight in the basement, only to discover that the same tripods are there as well, destroying everything in sight. There’s no denying that the world is under attack.
The first hour of War of the Worlds is absolutely harrowing. Spielberg intentionally calls to mind the events of 9/11 in the early scenes. It’s a seemingly ordinary day until a frightening and unexpected event occurs (the lightning storm). At first, everyone thinks it’s just an isolated incident of misfortune. Then it happens again, and the sickening realization sets in that this is not a coincidence. Finally, it becomes clear that an enemy has spent years covertly laying the groundwork for a devastating out-of-nowhere attack. Horrified victims run panicked through the streets. Buildings crumble, causing dust and debris to fly through the air. At one point, Rachel screams out in fear: “Is it the terrorists?” When the initial wave of the attack is over, people post pictures of their missing loved ones on walls and fences.
Spielberg does a masterful job of capturing the unsettling sense of pure dread that we all felt on the morning of Sept. 11, while still keeping the movie as a work of science fiction. The tripods continue to attack and attack and attack, while Ray tries to find a safe haven for his children. Although he has been a negligent father at best, he suddenly finds a purpose in parenthood. Wherever he goes, Ray doesn’t feel safe (just as none of us felt safe on 9/11) but he refuses to give up.
I think that War of the Worlds has its finger on the pulse of something here. It kind of suggests that Americans are too complacent. We’ve taken for granted the fact that we’re the most powerful nation on earth, and consequently that makes us very vulnerable. Spielberg, making good use of special effects, creates genuine intensity in the first hour. He seems to be on the verge of saying something important about life in our post-9/11 world. This is especially true when Robbie wants to run off to assist the military in fighting the tripods. Ray doesn’t want to let him go but realizes there’s no way to talk him out of it. Certainly the families of American soldiers fighting the war on terror can identify with the mixed feelings of sending a child into a battle that doesn’t appear to be winnable.
Then – at the start of hour two – Ray and Rachel make their way into the basement of Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), one of those survivalist types. It is at this exact moment that War of the Worlds suffers a notable decline in quality. Ogilvy apparently lives in the only house the aliens won’t destroy. It’s odd, considering that they completely demolish everything else in the area. Ogilvy and Ray compare what they’ve seen and decide that the tripods must have a weakness that can be exploited. If so, maybe they can stop them.
If this sounds like the set-up for a “Tom Cruise Saves the World from Aliens” plot, that’s because it is. War of the Worlds more or less abandons its ambitions in order to become an Independence Day-style action/adventure. The way the relationship between Ray and Ogilvy plays out is fascinating and unexpected, yet the film doesn’t do enough with it. And the sense of realistic dread that was so beautifully achieved in the first hour slowly dissipates. Instead, we get a fairly predictable scene where Cruise manages to take down one of the aliens. He also is the key individual who figures everything out and lets the military know when to strike the creatures in order to blow them up. The final scene of the film tries to tie everything up into a neat little bow, but the happiness of the ending is unearned.
I debated a little bit about whether or not to recommend War of the Worlds. On one hand, it is (for a while, at least) a seriously ambitious attempt to use the science-fiction genre to explore themes related to terrorism and America’s you’ll-never-keep-us-down spirit. On the other, Spielberg doesn’t follow through on whatever he seemed poised to say. The film becomes a generic (though still enjoyable) summer popcorn adventure. I’ve ultimately decided to give it a recommendation on a couple of counts: the first hour alone makes the whole thing worth seeing, the acting is very good throughout, and the special effects are superb. Spielberg also displays his customary craftsmanship in creating action sequences that knock your socks off, regardless of whether they add up to something more. But my recommendation is tempered by the fact that this started off as a great movie and ended as little more than a piece of pleasant fluff.
War of the Worlds works as thrill-a-minute summer entertainment, which makes it worth a look. Just be aware of the fact that once Ray enters Ogilvy’s basement, the best part of the movie is over.
( out of four)
War of the Worlds is rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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