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Script dooms Spielberg's latest

By Lady Liberty
web posted July 4, 2005

War of the Worlds

* 1/2 out of ****

War of the WorldsPreliminary word on War of the Worlds was lukewarm at best. Even the friendliest reviews lamented what was often referred to as a "fizzle" of an ending (though how anyone could possibly be surprised at an ending that's been known for over a hundred years is beyond me). The only exception I've found in the reviews has come from People magazine's Leah Rozen, who waxed poetic about Cruise's performance and the movie's suspense. She gave the movie three and a half stars (out of four), which is high praise indeed coming from Ms. Rozen.

Typically, Rozen is the one critic with whom I almost always disagree. She doesn't seem to like too many movies (and she really hates poor Keanu Reeves), and the more a movie is intended as a "blockbuster" type, the more she all too often hates it (Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were a rare exception for her). I fully expected her to loathe War of the Worlds on principle if nothing else, so her priase came as a bit of a surprise. But now having seen the movie myself, I can say that, in a backhanded sort of way, I suppose it's refreshing to see that Ms. Rozen and I still disagree: I was entirely unimpressed with War of the Worlds.

War of the Worlds is, of course, a classic story from the brilliant — and often prescient — H.G. Wells. On October 30, 1938, fledgling director Orson Welles took to the radio waves with a brilliantly conceived script based on the Wells story. His production, consisting of orchestral music interrupted by "news" reports, was so well done that audiences were quite literally panicked by it. In 1953, War of the Worlds was made into a movie. The movie won a 1953 Hugo for "best dramatic telling" and a 1954 Oscar for special effects. In 2005, Steven Spielberg determined to depart from his previous friendly alien movies and remake War of the Worlds largely from the point of view of a single New Jersey family caught up in the epic battle.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a dockworker in New Jersey and the divorced father of two. Among the many things that Ray is not is a good father. But when his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and her new husband, Tim take a weekend trip to Boston, Ray is tapped to take care of the kids. Although Ray seems willing to make some small effort to get along with his children, neither of the kids are overwhelmed with joy to be stuck with him. 17 year-old Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is as surly and sullen as only a rebellious teen can be; 10 year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is worldly beyond her years after having long ago come to terms with her father's shortcomings. But their strained famiily dynamic soon ceases to have much meaning when earth is unexpectedly invaded by an utterly implacable alien presence.

The Ferrier household happens to be quite near one of the many sites where mechanical tripods burst forth from ground bombarded by apparent lightning strikes to begin wreaking havoc and destroying everyone and everything in sight. With no time to argue with his son or to placate his daughter, and having seen all too graphically what the alien weapons can do to people and things in their way, Ray determines that running away as fast as possible is the only real choice he has if he wants to survive. He piles the kids into a stolen van and, too panicked for any other plans, determines to get to Boston where he can at least deliver them to their mother.

Traveling through utter chaos amidst the widespread death and destruction caused by the aliens, Ray's plans take more than a few detours. One of those sidetracks lands him in the welcome shelter of the basement of a man named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Unfortunately, Ogilvy offers dangers all his own, and Ray is unsure how to combat them in any but the strongest possible terms. Meanwhile, earth continues to fall victim to the alien invasion force, and it's apparent that, barring a miracle, humanity has little if any chance of survival.

As you might expect for such a science fiction epic, Spielberg was able to tap the resources of a little special effects house owned by his friend George Lucas. Industrial Light and Magic did, indeed, provide some magic for War of the Worlds. The special effects are superlative, particularly when it comes to close-up shots of those people and things victimized by alien weapons fire. The tripods, too, are more than a little imposing, and when you see various buildings destroyed, you'll be hard pressed not to believe the film team actually destroyed those big buildings because the effects are just that good. One set that's not a special effect involves a crashed 747, and the size and scope of that scene is at least as dramatic as the most audacious effect. Unfortunately, however, much of the rest of the movie falls very, very short of expectation not to mention of story potential.

Tom Cruise is okay in his role, though he might have been better if his character hadn't been so one-dimensional. Tim Robbins is better as a scary and presumably insane man, but his screen time is limited. Justin Chatwin offers an impressive performance for a relative newcomer, and Mirando Otto is perfectly believable in her small role. Not surprisingly to those who've seen her in other major films, it's 11 year-old Dakota Fanning that blows every other actor in the movie out of the water with a performance that's amazing in and of itself let alone coming from a child. (An incidental treat for the knowledgeable movie-goer is the brief cameo appearance of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson who starred in the 1953 film). The direction is surprisingly only okay, though it is serviceable. The real problem with this version of War of the Worlds is an utterly lackluster script.

Though interviews suggest that this film was intended to personalize the awful invasion by focusing on the experiences of one family, it's difficult to feel personal about it when the characters are so poorly drawn. Ray doesn't seem to be a very nice guy; he's selfish, and something of a coward, and we never really see his redeeming qualities. Even his struggle to save his children is apparently motivated only by the idea of getting them to their mother so he can be shed of them, but we're not sure because his character never delves into anything deeper than saying his relatively disparate lines. We don't see any conflict in his decisions, nor do we really get a feel for the painful growth he must be experiencing. Robbie is little more than a not particularly creatively rebellious kid. And little Rachel spends far too much of her time behaving as a much younger child. It should also be pointed out that, during what is supposed to be a very frightening scene in the movie, the audience tittered with laughter over a very silly premise and the matching effect to go with it.

The friend with whom I saw the movie commented that the script really consisted of only a few lines: "Rachel! Rachel!" and "Get in the car, Robbie!" Sure, the effects are great. And the actors each do what they can with their shallow roles. But the truth is that, without a good script, War of the Worlds falls relatively flat. In 1996, Independence Day opened on this same holiday weekend with its own War of the Worlds kind of story. And it did it much, much better.

POLITICAL NOTES: It's an extraordinarily sad commentary on our times when, on the occasion of the first alien attacks, a child asks, "Is it terrorists?" It's also possible to draw some parallel to an unexpected attack and to a war that's quite literally global though not as deadly as the one in the film. Spielberg used real military units (Army and Marines) for some of the scenes in War of the Worlds. The men and women are depicted as brave albeit locked in hopeless combat, and the characters treat the military with respect and gratitude. That's a plus. On the minus side, however, there's a scene involving guns that's an obvious jab at the "uselessness" of guns for self defense. Given that Spielberg re-edited ET for an anniversary release by replacing guns with radios, this shouldn't be a real surprise. It is, however, still a disappointment.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: War of the Worlds is rated PG-13 for "frightening sequences of sci fi violence and disturbing images." Thanks to the realism of the effects, I'd have to agree that some sequences are much too intense and scary for younger kids. Those of about 12 and up, though, should be fine. Language isn't an issue here, and there's certainly no nudity or sexual references to worry about. Kids of that age, too, might forgive the movie's shortcomings in exchange for some incredible visual images. Adults, however, have come to expect a story along with their "ooh" and "ah" moments, and they'll be sadly disappointed if they expect any more than the most cardboard of tales from this film.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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