War of the Worlds – Disappointing, though visually great: Review
Steven Spielberg's latest "War of the Worlds" is the most disappointing in his entire repertoire. Even among his science-fiction films, such "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Jurassic Park", "War of the Worlds", which describes an alien invasion, appears jaded.
What is worse, the Spielberg movie is awfully gory. In fact, there is a scene where Tom Cruise covers the eyes of his screen daughter, Dakota Fanning, as she see bodies floating in a swollen river. Beyond the waters is a landscape that is covered with blood, which the hideous monsters in their giant tripod look-alike machines suck out of humans for sustenance.
Perhaps, Spielberg had a good enough reason to film the 1898 H.G. Wells novel by the same name. A clear indication comes from a single sentence from Fanning, who asks Cruise as they flee the dastardly attack, "Is this the terrorists ?" The current paranoia is equally well reflected in the scenes that follow this.
In fact, Wells himself wrote his novel at a time when a unified Germany was arming itself, a prelude to, what many saw as, a war in Europe. The 1938 Orson Wells' radio broadcast of the work and the 1953 screen adaptation by George Pal mirrored societal fears of military aggression and Cold War.
Although Wells' commentary caused virtual panic -- with Pal's movie more subdued in treatment with a liberal emphasis on romance - Spielberg's version may not quite produce a similar reaction. But, can one pass this as entertainment, with its sadistic streak, which offends the eye, and, one would think, the psyche.
Spielberg may refute this: he has said that his focus has been the sociology and psychology of fear. There is plenty of fear though, when an alien attack begins as Cruise, a recently divorced dock worker, gets ready to take care of his teenage son and 10-year-old daughter. They get hold of a car, and try and escape to Boston, where their mother is holidaying with her new man.
En route, there are visually stunning shots - created by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, costume designer Joanna Johnston, editor Michael Kahn and production designer Rick Carter - of the war between Earthlings and aliens (not from the Mars though this time, for unlike Wells, we now know that the fiery red planet holds no life). At the start, there is this awesome shot of a lightening storm and darkened sky. Scenes of a huge crashed aircraft, a burning train as it speeds by and a large steamer as it sinks, all in the face of mammoth tripods descending from the skies, with their searchlights on and their rays of death vaporizing men in seconds.
"War of the Worlds" is best appreciated as a string of such sequences, where technical marvel is so overpowering that it gets us into a trance. Yes, we do tend to get out of it, and rather too quickly for Spielberg's comfort. And, when we do get out of the cinema, the question that troubled me was simple enough: do viewers perceive such destruction and chaos as entertainment? I would hope not, and would wish that Spielberg, who may not always make great movies, but is at the same time incapable of rank bad stuff,
sticks to works such as "Schindler's List" and "The Terminal", where the humanizing effect leaves a pleasant feeling.
In "War of the Worlds", it is the relationship between Cruise and Fanning on the screen that ignites a rare sense of emotion in the midst of all that screeching robotic steel and monstrosity. It gave me immense pleasure to watch Fanning as she plays little Rachel, invariably out performing Cruise. The other noteworthy actor in the film is Tim Robbins, who acts a deranged survivor in world that seems to have gone horribly wrong.
(This review appeared in The Hindu dated July 8 2005)