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Dustin Putman

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War of the Worlds (2005)
3 Stars

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins, David Alan Basche, James DuMont, Lisa Ann Walter, Yul Vasquez, Daniel Franzese, Lenny Venito. Narrated by Morgan Freeman.
2005 – 118 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 28, 2005.

"No one would have believed in the early years of the twenty-first century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own. That as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed — and studied. The way a man with a microscope might scrutinize that creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet, across the gulf of space, intellects vast, and cool, and unsympathetic, regarded our planet with envious eyes...and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us."
          — opening narration from 2005's "War of the Worlds"

"War of the Worlds," which began as a novel by H.G. Wells, gained further notoriety with an infamous 1930s radio program by Orson Welles that, of course, turned out to be a hoax, and was adapted into a 1953 film, has stuck in the public's consciousness precisely because of its consonant relevance. By telling the story of earth being overtaken and destroyed by giant alien tripods from outer space, the story plays into the very real fears planted firmly in our own world, of terrorists, and wars between countries, and enemies that may live in our own backyard. The present-day global climate of war and terrorism runs as an undeniable apropos undercurrent throughout this latest sprawling adaptation of "War of the Worlds," and there couldn't be a better time for its release into theaters.

Directed by Steven Spielberg (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"), an incomparable master craftsman of building huge sci-fi and fantasy plotlines around smaller, beautifully realized human stories, "War of the Worlds" completes something of a trilogy for the world-renowned filmmaker that began with 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and continued with 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." The visitors from another planet this time, however, are far from cute and friendly, their main purpose being to put the self-involved human race in their place by wiping them out and claiming what they believe is theirs. Making such a premise all the more chilling is the notion that they have been here all along, at least since the dawn of man, laying wait beneath our feet for just the right moment to pounce.

Free of the stereotypical characters, jingoistic themes and cliche-riddled screenplay of 1996's "Independence Day," "War of the Worlds" is the real deal, a finite, if likely not final, last word on the alien invasion sci-fi subgenre. Told wholly from the point-of-view of a broken family, the picture takes on a jarring, horrifying immediacy that makes the ultimate fight for their lives feel palpably real. In this way, it makes for an ideal and appropriate companion piece with M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 masterpiece, "Signs," which was also about a single family's experiences amidst a global alien takeover.

Somewhat estranged, decidedly deadbeat New Jersey dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) has no sooner taken his kids—brooding teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and prepubescent Rachel (Dakota Fanning)—for the weekend that they are struck by violent lightning storms unlike anything they have ever seen. At first it is all fun and games for Ray and many of the neighborhood residents, who are intrigued by the oddball weather. And then they hit—giant, laser-zapping alien crafts known as "tripods" that rise from beneath the ground and waste no time in obliterating anything and everything in their path. Ray and the kids go on the run, headed for Boston where their mother (Miranda Otto) has gone for the weekend. With the tripods closing in, their journey gradually becomes something of a grim, even hopeless, proposition. After all, even if they make it to Boston in one piece, how is that going to help them if the human world is coming to an end?

Under the helm of Steven Spielberg, who knows his way around crafting smart, taut, crowd-pleasing popcorn flicks, "War of the Worlds" is notably darker and more violent in tone than he is accustomed to (think 1993's "Jurassic Park," but even less kid-friendly). Drawing the viewer in with a deliberate buildup and then not letting go of its suffocatingly tense grip until the final five minutes (more on this later), "War of the Worlds" is precisely what a summer blockbuster should be, separating the so-so wannabes with the genuine article. Through nearly flawless acting, efficient editing that doesn't waste a second of screentime, and stunningly plausible visual effects work from Industrial Light & Magic, the film builds a level of heightened audience apprehension, making one believe the scary circumstances faced by the characters are actually happening. Concurrently, Spielberg and screenwriters David Koepp (2004's "Secret Window") and Josh Friedman have even loftier intentions, making some fairly astute comments on the resilience of human nature, from our ugly self-centeredness to our abilities of redemption and self-sacrifice in the most hopeless of times.

The amount of noteworthy individual set-pieces are plentiful, to say the least. The initial sequence in which the tripods make their first appearance, abruptly and all the more effectively, may take the viewer's breath away (it did mine). It is horrific and cruel and filmed in such a way that puts you right in the midst of a nightmare come to fruition. Other outstanding scenes include one involving a capsized ferry and the subsequent onslaught of tripods across the country's nighttime landscape; a cat-and-mouse game with one of the tripod's tentacles in a farmhouse basement that leads to the first glimpse of the intimidating beings being dealt with; and an alarming climactic scene best left to be discovered on one's own.

The conception of the daunting tripods, and the amazing CGI work that brings them to life, are first-rate, while the cinematography by frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski (2004's "The Terminal") is beautiful in a gritty way. Other technical credits are equally superb, including John Williams' rousing music score and some expertly thunderous sound effects editing. Most refreshingly, Spielberg has done away with his ugly achromatic, washed-out photographic obsession of his last few movies, and this one is aesthetically all the better for it.

Tim Robbins (2003's "Mystic River") as an armed renegade stranger the Ferriers meet along the way, and newcomer Justin Chatwin as Ray's son, Robbie, play their parts with focused aplomb that is difficult to criticize, but from an actor's standpoint, this is Tom Cruise's (2004's "Collateral") and Dakota Fanning's (2005's "Hide and Seek") film all the way. It is a testament to Cruise's professionalism and dedication that he immediately makes one forget about his current appearances in the press and tabloids concerning fiancée Katie Holmes and his controversial Scientology views and see him only as his character of a blue-collar, not particularly likable, uninvolved father. As for wunderkind Fanning, as daughter Rachel, what is there to say about her that hasn't been said in the past? As far as child performers go, there is no one in the business better than her, and comparisons to Jodie Foster are not hyperbole. Fanning is natural and adorable without having to mug—she's much too good and intuitive for that—and plays the emotion of being insanely frightened with a plausibility that could give the most hardened viewer chills up his or her spine.

For about 105 minutes, "War of the Worlds" is Steven Spielberg's most auspicious achievement since "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"—perhaps one of his best ever—but the concluding moments take a disappointing turn that is a bad idea any way you look at it. Even in a pitch-dark thriller like this one, Spielberg can't help but end things on a typically Spielbergian note. The ending plot developments are saccharine and falsely sentimental, sadly lacking the courage of its convictions and the unblinking honesty of what has come before. There was a very clear ending that seemed to be setting itself up, and then Spielberg betrays it, turning a sci-fi classic for the ages into a motion picture that is still awfully good, even great, but lesser than it could have been. Overlooking this solitary misstep, "War of the Worlds" is a marvelous entertainment of imagination, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and surprising thoughtfulness. 2005 may already be halfway over, but it is one of the first must-see releases of the year.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman