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"A thrilling but frivolous ride."
"The trust factor between the filmmaker and the audience is severed."
"Asks too many questions and provides too few answers."
War of the Worlds  


Ray Ferrier: Tom Cruise
Rachel: Dakota Fanning
Mary Ann: Miranda Otto
Robbie: Justin Chatwin
Harlan Ogilvy: Tim Robbins
Review July 2005

Based on H.G. Wells' influential work, this modern retelling of "War of the Worlds" is vast in size and scale. Directed by blockbuster auteur, Steven Spielberg, the film tells the harrowing tale of Ray Ferrier, a blue-collar worker from New Jersey, who stumbles upon the early stages of an alien invasion and barely escapes with his life. In the aftermath, he back peddles to protect his family while Earth prepares its final defense against a more powerful and destructive foe. Told through the eyes of one American family, the film is up close and personal. And unlike Spielberg's prior outings like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.," these alien beings are evil, ruthless, and unyielding in their annihilation of the human race. As expected, the film is an extraordinary visual marvel, but sadly, one that is far less sophisticated in its story. And one that fails to stir the imagination. Although the entertainment value is sky high, this "War of the Worlds" is a thrilling but frivolous ride.

Ray Ferrier is a divorced dockworker and a poor father. His ex-wife, Mary Ann, has custody of his two children and has since remarried. But today, she is dropping off their children, teenage son Robbie and younger daughter Rachel, for the weekend while she and her new husband head to Boston to visit her parents. Hard working, but self centered, Ray is ill equipped to handle the kids. And after a half-hearted attempt that alienates Robbie, Ray retreats to his bedroom to find solace in an afternoon nap. When he awakens, Robbie is gone, along with his car. And equally disturbing, a rare and powerful lightning storm arrives. Unlike anything ever witnessed, the storm features lightning capable of striking in the same place. And when it subsides, Ray ventures out in search of Robbie.

Along the way, he notices a lack of electricity throughout the neighborhood. And soon, he bumps into Robbie, who is on his way home after his vehicle just stalled. Ray sends Robbie home while he goes off to investigate a large crowd of pedestrians surrounding a deep crater in the ground. But soon after his arrival, an extraordinary event occurs as a three-legged machine emerges from deep beneath the ground, disintegrating everything in its sight with robotic tentacles and white beams of light. Buildings crumble to pieces, hundreds of people are turned to ash, and widespread panic ensues. Shaken by the horrific events, Ray staggers to the house, determined to protect the children by taking them across the countryside. Uncertain as to where to go or what to do, they eventually become part of the mass exodus of refugees fleeing for their very lives. Yet, no matter where they run, the aliens are not far behind, obliterating every ounce of mankind from the face of the earth. And they soon realize that even a father's undying love may not be enough to survive, let alone save the world.

Over the years, "The War of the Worlds" has undergone many incarnations from radio to television to feature length films. First published in 1898, H.G. Wells' simplistic story of an insurmountable alien invasion played upon a society's fear of the unknown universe, and has since become a literary classic for well over a century. But its legendary status erupted on October 30, 1938, when a radio broadcast of the novel created widespread panic. Narrated by Orson Welles, the radio play was broadcast in the format of a news bulletin, reporting that a fiery object had landed near a farm in Grovers Mill, N.J., and that the earth was under attack. With the nation already on the edge over the outset of World War II, the frightening tale was misconstrued by thousands of people as a real event. Then, in 1953, the story re-emerged, this time as a feature length film with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. Under the helm of special effects wizard George Pal, this new interpretation shifted the setting to Southern California. And once again, it heightened anxiety during the era of McCarthyism. Now, over a century later, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on American soil, H.G. Wells' story returns with a familiar, yet haunting image.

Without question, Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" is a dazzling and horrific spectacle to behold. Calling upon the talents of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the film utilizes a variety of techniques and colors to present a realistic image of terror. Kaminski, known for his work on "Saving Private Ryan" utilizes similar methods of first person camera work to bring the audience directly into the action. And it benefits from the progression in lighting, whereby blues and grays become more colorful as the invasion becomes more ominous. Surprisingly, there are only about 500 or so CGI effects in the film, but none are more memorable than the first encounter with the Tripod in Ironbound, the five-cornered intersection in Newark, New Jersey. There, citizens are hit with light rays and evaporate into ash, buildings and streets crumble to pieces or implode, and the menacing sound of the Tripods is enough to send ripples down your spine. And it is the combination of all of these - sound, sound editing, visual effects, visual effects editing, cinematography, production design, and more - that makes the film an overwhelming, technical achievement.

"This is not a war. This is an extermination!" Appropriate words used by Ogilvy to describe the massive assault on Earth. It's an incomprehensible event and rather than cover it all, the film wisely narrows its scope to first person. Yet, this decision is not without flaw. Portrayed as an egotistical, selfish buffoon, Ray Ferrier is an unattractive focal character. And his motivations throughout the film are driven by a lack of fatherly skills. In other words, he is not so much trying to save and protect his children as he is trying to find their mother so that he can abandon them once again. This, of course, makes it very difficult to believe any kind of transformation is real. After all, it's almost amusing to think that the only way he becomes a loving father is through a global holocaust. In the lead role, Tom Cruise is adequate, even sharing a tender moment and a tearful lullaby with his daughter. And Dakota Fanning shows signs of maturity. But for the most part, this is simply another action film with flat characters and singular emotions, one in which its participants are placed into situations where their only recourse is to run or scream.

Digging deeper, an even bigger problem with "War of the Worlds" is that it supplies very little logic behind the action on the screen. By nature, action films have that tendency. But this is Steven Spielberg we're talking about, whose suspenseful thrillers include "Jaws," "Indiana Jones," and "Jurassic Park," films where the action escalates only as a result of real character building. But that doesn't happen with these one-dimensional characters. And in a science fiction genre where fantasy is based on plausible science, the lines are crossed even more. Aliens have been planning hostility against Earth for millions of years, possibly predating man's very own existence. And questions begin popping up like: How can a collective be hostile against another that doesn't exist? How could such an advanced civilization overlook something as simple as bacteria? And how could they not have evolved from tripods? Equally puzzling, the film fails to explain the widespread growth of the red weed, the loss of power in some areas and not others, the disintegration of people but not their clothes, the origin of aliens via lightning bolts, and numerous other scientific quandaries. Thus, with so much unanswered, the trust factor between the filmmaker and the audience is severed.

And it only draws attention to other circumstantial flaws. The family has the only operational car in the state of New Jersey. And somehow, it remains unblemished after an entire neighborhood is flattened. The aliens destroy humans with laser rays only to change their minds midway through and consume them. And speaking of the aliens, they take a moment's pause from world destruction to fondle over a woman's photograph? Lastly, who could forget Boston, completely unscathed in the attack on Earth? All of these and more are noticeable because due diligence was not performed in regard to the story or the characters, which in turn, makes the ending the biggest leap of all.

Like many of Steven Spielberg's works, "War of the Worlds" is a highly entertaining visual extravaganza. And it is bound to be one of the summer's smash successes with its electrifying action and earth shattering effects. But if you put the fancy stuff aside, you are left with a film that asks too many questions and provides too few answers. It's a courageous leap of faith that Spielberg asks of his audience - one that crosses the boundaries of fortuitous circumstance and theoretical science to emerge, poorly conceived. And while many of the details are faithful to the novel, very little is left to the imagination. Says the narrator: "By the toll of a billion deaths, man has bought his birthright of the earth...for neither do men live nor die in vain." And birthright or no, you'll be hard pressed to find a trace of humanity in this war of the worlds.

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