I go to see a Spielberg film because it is a Spielberg film. Mr. Spielberg has always demonstrated an ability to tell interesting and compelling stories and to use seemingly magical technical skills to create stunning and unforgettable visual imagery on film. He could as easily make you laugh as cry. He could work with children, women, dinosaurs, or space aliens; he could take you to the past, the present or the future, and you would believe you had been there.
But then he met the emperor's new actor Tom Cruise.
War of the Worlds is pretty good movie making. The special effects are as usual top notch. There is a segment that involves a minivan racing across streets and highways littered with stalled vehicles. Tom and his kids are fleeing the advancing alien machines. As the minivan speeds along, the camera angle changes rapidly from aerial views (as if from a helicopter closely following the vehicle), swooping down and into the van to catch some dialog, back out and up in the sky, back down and in another window for more dialogue. You go from bird's eye view to fly on the windshield and back, all at sixty miles an hour with no cuts, just one continuous shot. I don't know how he does that kind of stuff, but it was every bit as good as a roller coaster ride.
And as far as blowing things up, hell, you can't get much better than this movie. Spielberg even manages to find a way to blow up people in a way that's really disgusting but doesn't resort to blobs of movie goop being thrown on the camera lens.
What is all over the lens is Tom Cruise.
If you want to redirect an effects-laden science fiction story about aliens away from the effects and the aliens and toward the story of a man dealing with personal issues in the midst of mayhem, fine. But Tom is not the actor you want in that kind of role. The aliens were very believable, but I was distracted by the strings as Pinocchio Cruise kept trying act like a real boy.
If you are a Tom Cruise fan, you'll probably like this film. However, as much as I like Spielberg, my advice is wait for the DVD on this one.
All last week Bernie asked me what day I wanted to go see War of the Worlds. My response was to schedule a root canal, bunion surgery, a colonoscopy, and a tax audit. "Sorry, honey, I just don't know when I can fit it in."
There's a reason for all that. I loathe Tom Cruise; it's not a new feeling about him, by any means -- I couldn't stand his high-profile nostrils and constantly-open-mouth from the first time I saw him. Some people love him. Go figure. He's kind of a loathe him or love him kind of guy, I suppose. Why Spielberg has hooked up with this loser is beyond me; for me, it's the Emperor's New Clothes all over again. "Hello," calls the kid from the sidelines, "Tom Cruise is awful, how did he get to be a superstar? Can I sign his agent?"
In between the drugs for the dental appointment and the drugs for the tax audit, there was a clear space during which I could not in good conscience lie about having other things to do, and it was over 100 degrees, so I accompanied Bernie to the movies to see War of the Worlds.
The really great benefit was that it made me come directly home, look for a copy of H. G. Wells' book, and read it.
Had Spielberg read the story (one assumes from having watched this film that someone else ((someone semi-literate and in marketing)) read the book for him and told him about salient points) I would like to think he would have reconsidered setting the story in modern times, reconsidered his choice of main character, and maybe even have reviewed the film himself before it was released.
The original story takes place in a time before cars, at the height of the British Empire, in England, and when the first of the alien craft plow into the earth, the reaction of the citizenry is to run to help whoever or whatever being is in that steaming, battered vehicle. Spielberg's vision is that the alien craft were burrowed deep into the ground buzillions of years ago (the aliens called it to a micrometer where New York would eventually stand, those clever snookums!) and now, the reaction of the populace is to get as close to the scary lightning storm and quaking, breaking earth cracks as possible, staring in fascination as buildings start to fall and asphalt crumbles to reveal a giant metal machine.
Maybe that's just New York. In California, if the ground starts to rumble and crack, we try to get as far away as possible immediately. But I don't think it's just here, I think people everywhere would be horrified and want to run; the Tom Cruise character, Ray Ferrier, is probably responsible for the people's stupidity -- he constantly turns back towards danger to have a second, third, and several more looks. Throughout the movie.
Wells' story was about how people have to realize their vulnerability in the universe and leave behind their arrogance in thinking they are the Lords of the World. He was influenced by the threat of World War I and by the tenuous nature of the British Empire. Spielberg interpreted that as an excuse to make the main character an irresponsible father who, saddled with the unwelcome visit of his children, learned through the horrors of alien invasion that he really did love his kids after all.
Sorry, H. G. Wells' story didn't need that interpretation. The movie didn't need the pregnant ex-wife whining and complaining, didn't need a potential child molester, didn't need two really disobedient, disrespectful, totally stupid kids who obviously needed padded rooms to survive into adulthood even had the aliens not shown up on their doorstep.
Spielberg's movie catches bits and pieces that the old '50's film didn't: the vampirism of the aliens, the disgusting overgrowth of the red plants, the surprise the aliens felt at discovery of man's invention of the wheel. But mostly the movie is about Tom Cruise: Tom as insensitive but hopeful ex-husband, Tom as ohmigod-I'm-a-father, Tom as shell-shocked refugee. Sadly (and as always) he plays every role the same. Keano Reeves is more expressive in a wider range.
Following Ray Ferrier's flight with his family was tense; the denouement was almost ludicrous. I knew how the story would end, but even so, it was hurried. "Well, you know, the aliens lose. Goodbye."
The continuity gaffes were unacceptable. That's why I wonder if Spielberg actually ever saw the script, read the book, screened a movie with his name on it. Shame on you, Steve. The Emperor is butt-nekkid.
I'd watch this movie on DVD again, but only if our illustrious editor is there, doing a voice-over. Then I'd nominate it for Comedy of the Year.
P.S. Shame on Tim Robbins and Miranda Otto for accepting such crappy roles.
P.P.S. Read the original story. It's a lot more compelling.