War of the Worlds

You can tell a lot about a society’s psychological state by examining its popular culture. Given the recent onslaught of horror films and their enormous popularity, one would have to conclude that Americans are scared shitless right now. Or, at the very least, profoundly disturbed. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to ride the zeitgeist and push the terrorism panic buttons.

Lean, mean and uncomfortably somber, War of the Worlds is the director’s black-hearted response to the innocent optimism of E.T. and Close Encounters. Adapted from H.G. Well’s classic novel and retooled for today’s audiences, Spielberg’s ode to the alien massacre of humans has just one message: fear.

With a ferocity he hasn’t shown since Jaws, Spielberg orchestrates set pieces that are as immersive as they are frightening. Alien attack vessels burst from beneath city streets, violently ripping through concrete to indiscriminately vaporize gawking pedestrians. A crowd of hopeful survivors waits at a railroad crossing only to watch a commuter train, consumed by flames, thunder past. A child watches as hundreds of corpses float down the Hudson River. There’s a sadistic genius to the filmmaker’s nightmarish visions, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s bleak, washed-out vision heightens the film’s intense sense of dread.

Special praise should also be given to the sound effects team. As the alien vessels lumber across the landscape, they fill the air with sickening hydraulic crashes and clanks, and deafening foghorns. The effect is nothing short of primal fear.

While War demonstrates Spielberg’s unquestionable mastery of craft, it also, unfortunately, highlights the shortcomings of screenwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman. Though adept at painting the story’s “big picture,” the human elements of their script are far less successful. There’s very little emotional pull to the characters.

Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced New Jersey dockworker saddled with his son (Justin Chatwin) and daughter (Dakota Fanning) for the weekend. Less a character and more a type, Ray is the Bad Dad who, in the face of adversity, learns to become a Good Dad. The alien invasion offers the ultimate parental proving ground.

Unfortunately, the Ferrier family are a pretty shallow and underdeveloped bunch. Cruise gives Ray his jaw-clenching best, but comes up short. Even the talented Fanning comes off as stiff and mannered, left to deliver improbably adult lines and an endless succession of hysterical shrieks.

The film’s last half hour runs out of dramatic gas. Ray holes up in a farmhouse cellar only to contend with its owner (Tim Robbins), a retired ambulance driver who vows to fight back against the alien invaders. The scene boasts a terrific claustrophobic game of cat and mouse with a snake-like probe, but after so many viscerally unsettling set pieces, it’s a bit of a letdown. Instead of building upon the horror and fear generated in the first two-thirds of the film, the encounter ends up flat. As a result, the finale, while true to Wells’ novel, feels unearned and somewhat arbitrary.

Still, for almost 90 minutes, Spielberg fills the screen with one compellingly nightmarish vision after another. The murder and mayhem perpetrated by the aliens is relentless, ratcheting up the tension masterfully. Unlike many of his past films, the director keeps the humor surprisingly minimal. Brazenly borrowing imagery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his camera mercilessly lingers on homemade missing-persons posters and tattered clothing as it drifts to the ground like so much World Trade Center detritus. Early on, Cruise even washes the dust of vaporized human beings from his skin. There’s no question that Spielberg is tapping into America’s most uncomfortable memories and it prompts the question: Is it appropriate to exploit these experiences for what essentially amounts to a Hollywood thrill ride?

In the end, War Of The Worlds is hardly a grand statement about survival of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. Like a big fireworks display, the movie impresses with spectacular pyrotechnics and then vanishes into thin air.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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