War of the Worlds
I’m not gonna give this movie too much attention, but since it is one of the biggest films of the summer... Considering that I’m seriously contemplating buying one of those “Save Katie” T-shirts, watching War of the Worlds on opening weekend was not at the top of my to-do-list. Why give Tom Cruise any sense that he is at all relevant?
That said, my friend wanted to go, and I’m a nice person. And truth be told, the first hour or so of this movie is really well done. Sure, seeing Tom Cruise work on the docks is a bit laughable, but his performance is certainly satisfactory, if not exactly nuanced. Spielberg maintains such a tight control over his actors and the actions of the film that I was truly glued to my seat. Taking his time to develop his characters and to introduce the aliens, Spielberg evidences incredible confidence as a director. Incorporating images reminiscent of 9/11, Spielberg also evidences bravery.
The set-up situation: Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier is a less than enthusiastic father with an angry teenage son and a cute, outspoken daughter (and yep, Dakota Fanning is quite good at being terrified). Josh Friedman and David Koepp’s screenplay avoids clichés for the most part. Miranda Otto as Ferrier’s ex appears only momentarily, but she evidences genuine concern for her children rather than the usual bitchy/shrewish behavior of an ex. Ferrier himself struggles against overwhelming fear and confusion for much of the film; fighting to maintain his composure to save his and his children’s lives, Ferrier reacts as a normal guy in an extraordinary situation.
The film lost me about half way through—right about the time Tim Robbins shows up as Ogilvy, a man who demonstrates serious mental strain. Despite the fact that Spielberg employs typically successful horror devices—a killer searches for his prey, a child hides behind whatever object is handy, two men fight while trying to maintain the secrecy of their hiding place—I got bored.
In addition, during this scene with Ogilvy, three aliens wander into the basement hiding place, looking at random objects and going through some photographs (!). Until this point, we had only seen giant tripod machines from which the unseen aliens zapped terrified humans. Unlike Roger Ebert, I found these tripods rather frightening in an Imperial Walker kind of way. But seeing the aliens themselves in the basement removed some of the horror. After all, what we create in our own mind is always ten times as scary as what the greatest technical genius can devise.
Ogilvy’s role in the film remains ambiguous. He acts as merely another threat when perhaps he could have challenged Ferrier. For much of the movie, Ferrier re-acts rather than pro-acts. Ogilvy challenges his passivity: encouraging a “go get ‘em” attitude toward the aliens. Ultimately, Ferrier makes a decisive action with respect to Ogilvy, but their previous dialogue remained relatively one-sided, with Ogilvy chiding and Ferrier ignoring. Cruise’s character too easily avoided facing the harsh truths of Ogilvy’s rants. Shame to waste Tim Robbins like that.
From this point on, the movie simply failed to recapture me. I started asking too many questions for which there were no answers: what was the ultimate goal of the aliens? Why did those vines grow everywhere? Why spray blood all over the place? And most upsetting, how is it that the final shot of Boston reveals a rather pristine, undamaged street?
All these gripes aside, though, the movie is certainly entertaining in a fun-scary kind of way, even though there are few surprises and fewer opportunities for a deeper conversation about thematic implications or personal connections. Like the final shot of Boston, the movie puts the audience through the motions but ultimately leaves us relatively untouched.