I must admit that I came to this movie with some preconceptions, my image of what this would be was clouded by two names. Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. Spielbergs tendency to be very off form of late and his desire to slap happiness all over his movies, which by the way can work really well but not in a movie about planet extermination. Then there’s Cruise who, of late, has been bigger than any character he’s been playing, and my fear was that seeing him on screen would bring nothing but thoughts of Cruise and his antics rather than of the character he’s playing.
So walking into the cinema I wasn’t prepared for the movie that I saw, and some excellent screen moments from both Cruise and Spielberg. Here they both prove that they are on better than ever form and that when needed to they can deliver the best in Hollywood. However not the same can be said for the whole film, so let’s not get too full of praise straight away.
Let’s start with Cruise, because I don’t really know where to start. His performance begins like the Cruise we think we know, it’s almost as if Spielberg knew that the audience would need to be guided along to this character rather than just dropped in front of him. The first moment I saw him I thought “Cruise will be having a lot of fun playing with that Crane, I wonder if he really is”, that’s the first moment you see him and then I was wholly thinking of the actor.
Then Spielberg pulls you down to ground level and there he is, grinning his hugely perfect and confident grin, stepping proudly to a big mustang muscle car (oh lord!) and speeding and sliding through the corners until he parks at his house and meets his ex wife. Suddenly there’s a change, you see him step down the performance, there’s still some swagger and confidence, and you can still see the personality Cruise, but as the seconds move on and the characters are introduced, so does the personality Cruise disappear. Until the moment the kids have left the car and you’re staring at a defensive, embittered and distant father.
It really does feel like Spielberg has carried this to perfection, and the actor Cruise is in place giving a superb performance. Early on he’s firing with all cylinders playing the angry father trying to find some way to get to his kids without letting real emotion come through. His kids don’t accept him as his father, and the daughter is taking a mothering role while the son is rebelling and lashing out.
This protective exterior comes crashing down quite early on in the movie, as the invasion begins its initial stages. The scene that marks the turn most effectively is when her returns to his family and they begin to ask what has happened. From this point onwards I didn’t even think of the personality or even the name of Cruise again, he was just a superb actor.
Throughout the movie he’s called upon to display some really strong moments of emotion, particularly of the paternal kind, and I just can’t begin to say how convincing and utterly compelling he is during these scenes. It just goes to show what a truly great actor really can do.
The supporting actors are good in the movie, with Dakota Fanning giving an excellent performance as a confused and panicked young child. There’s no doubt that she is one of the strongest child actors there is in Hollywood just now, and if she is nurtured well and does not fall for the trappings of Hollywood, she just might become a superb actress. However, her character is called upon to whine, cry, scream, and generally be difficult, and this does get quite grating by the latter half of the movie, although it is fair to say that in such circumstances that’s probably how a child would act.
I think this is probably the only time I’d say this about Tim Robbins, apart from a certain duck related movie, but his character seemed out of place, over acted, and didn’t seem to serve any other dramatic purpose than to show that the father wanted to protect his children. Yet we knew this already, and the character appears out of nowhere, waves over two people amongst the masses running from the battle, and protects them and them alone. I just couldn’t fathom that and it seemed merely a need to recreate a section of the original story, whereas the film might have carried better either without it, or a much toned down set of scenes.
That carries me onto some of the issues with the story, and excuse me if I begin to over analyse this, but that’s what I do and I’m writing this so bear with me if you can, it might just be interesting too.
Straight up I was a bit miffed as Spielberg let’s us know from the credits that everything’s going to be okay, for those of us who know the story anyway. For those of you who don’t perhaps this serves for an interesting circular vehicle, but for me it seemed like a big DON’T PANIC sign. Perhaps this was just where I was being overly picky, but wait, there’s worse to come.
Let’s set aside the fact that it’s incredibly hard to believe that multiple times the family escapes death when all around them are falling to the relentless destruction of the creatures. It stars at the beginning as we see so many people fall right beside Cruise, including entire buildings and vehicles, yet he makes it out alive. This is repeated through the hugely impressive action pieces, and at some point I found myself wondering how they could just be so lucky. I shan’t go into the sequences themselves for fear of spoiling it, but once you’ve seen them you’ll probably feel the same, this family are blessed with the most amazing luck ever.
Now, I’m going to enter into the realm of a spoiler here, something I don’t really tend to do that often, so please be warned. Spoilers are coming up, and if you want to avoid it I’d suggest scrolling past the next few paragraphs.
*** Spoilers Below ***
Something I find extremely hard to fathom is the whole wrap up at the end. These creatures were killed by common germs that live within our atmosphere, okay I’m with them on that one, yet what the story says is that they have been here before and buried their ships underneath us. Surely that means that they would have been here before, if it doesn’t and the suggestion is that they landed these ships remotely, one then can ask the question why did they need to bury them in the first place? Surely they could have just remotely landed these ships for the invasion, there would be no need to prepack them.
Yet they did prepack them and that means that they’d been here before, because if they needed to prepack them then it’s logical to assume that they couldn’t land them at the time of the invasion as they did with the lightning storm, it suggests that they had to bring them and bury them themselves. That therefore means they’ve been on Earth before, they’ve been exposed to our atmosphere before, germs, and everything else in our air. Okay, it could have been an early Earth with a very young atmosphere, but surely they would have either become ill then, or taken samples for analysis to understand if it was inhabitable.
The whole idea that they didn’t even think to investigate the atmosphere at that time astounds me as a huge plot hole. I understand it if they came down to Earth in the huge cylinders of the original story, creatures and ships at one, but not coming back a second time to be surprised by the atmosphere of all things.
However I do understand the plot device, and it stretches into current world events. The ships are the sleepers within our society that can be awoken at any time to reign havoc and destruction upon us. As characters say many times in the movie “are they terrorists?”. This is undoubtedly Spielbergs 9/11 movie.
You can see it in the pictures of the missing at a couple of points in the movie, you can hear it in the dialogue as people ask that very question, you can see it in the comparisons the characters make, and in the very story itself. It’s very interesting that the aftermath of the plane crash is shown, but the crash itself is only heard, and the whole idea that the ships were beneath us all this time, that the aliens were waiting, almost among us, for the moment to begin.
Oh, and to preempt the ending of this review I have to open the spoiler of the ending. It’s pathetic. The idea that his son can run into the middle of a war zone and all the hummers are turned tail on fire, with the army unable to do anything and presumably wiped out when faced with multiple tripods, and return home faster than the father and his daughter to walk out in the final scene unharmed is ludicrous.
The family have escaped doom multiple times and finally he gives up his son to the war. Holding onto the futile belief that he will be home waiting for them afterwards. He is not a trained solider entering a War Zone to fight an identifiable and tangible enemy who do not have superior forces or weaponry, we do not need reminding that our soldiers will return from the war okay, we don’t need that message or I certainly don’t. I can hold out that hope myself, I’ve come into this cinema to see a story and you’ve kept me with this feeling throughout, the sugar coated delivery of the son at the end despite all odds, even when an army is wiped out around him, is pointless and stands out of the movie like a brick wall that you run into wide eyed seconds before the credits.
It’s too sweet, it’s too twee. We should have seen his character realise that his son was missing and that’s that. The message that the wall of missing photos is just something you see for other people is not a message that’s valid in today’s society. We need to face up to events around us and not try and sugar coat them. Okay, I could understand if the rest of the movie was as light and fluffy, but it wasn’t. Indeed I thought Spielberg had gone to great lengths to push it the opposite way. Perhaps this was the balance that he had to pay for pushing the rest of the movie so hard, only he and the execs really know.
*** Spoilers Above ***
Now, back to the unspoilered review. The action sequences and effects are stunning. The the tripods walking around the cities firing their rays; people exploding and being vaporised; cars, buildings and roadways being blasted and thrown across the screen with amazing realism, and the action sequence with the boat crossing, all are just stunningly created on screen. I actually couldn’t distinguish CGI from model from fullsize, and in the end from reality. It’s superbly created and crafted and shows that Spielberg is most definitely back on form.
Something that struck me throughout the film was how it compared with another. Now I’m not saying there’s a copy or anything, this is a different story, however Signs told the story of an Earth invasion but from the point of view of a family and nothing more. I found that throughout this telling of War of the Worlds I was thinking of Signs again and again. There are many comparisons, and Spielberg is telling the Worlds story from the family viewpoint, yet taking them out of the house.
There are flaws in the story, and it’s obviously here to serve a purpose other than just a retelling of the original story, yet it is done in that huge epic style and a very impressive one at that. Cruise is stunning in this role, more than I’ve seen him in a long time, and I totally forgot his personality and who he is off screen and was lost in his performance.
The best thing throughout this movie that I haven’t yet mentioned is the overriding feeling of dread that comes out of the movie. I sat through the film with an unease of what was, or could, happen, despite knowing the entire story. That feeling shows a good movie, it drew you in and took you along for the ride making you as anxious as the characters you were watching. This was utterly compelling on screen, yet, in the end, Spielberg wins.
After all this suspense and edge of your seat excitement, after the feelings of dread and foreboding throughout the movie, we’re treated to a typically Spielberg ending, and I have to say that we were surprised beyond words at the twee-ness of it all. To be quite frank it was a complete cop out, designed to give you that nice pat on the head and say “look, everything will be okay” and we hated it, we almost resented it. With the message that was being given out throughout the movie we expected an ending that was based more in reality than the world of Always or E.T..
Still, it’s a strong blockbuster, with an amazing Cruise performance. Without a doubt it’s a must see movie.