War of the Worlds (2005)

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I think War of the Worlds kicks off the latest stage of Spielberg’s career.  Some people may say it started with his previous film, The Terminal or that it hasn’t even begun yet.  And while I haven’t seen all of his most recent films yet (I haven’t seen any of his five most recent), this latest phase of his career feels a little like trudging through knee-high mud.  The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can at least had some optimism, and I think that’s what separates them from this film, which is full of irritating characters, implausible scenarios and a lazy script.  I do also have to say that I don’t know all the details of the original story on which this is based, but even if some of the issues with this story are directly from that story, it doesn’t mean they can’t be improved upon.

I don’t know what the point of this movie was (other than to make money).  The film is so full of cliches and familiar yet unlikeable character types, that it feels like Spielberg was angry the entire time making this.

Tom Cruise plays Ray, a divorced father of two who is negligent, messy and more like a fifteen year old than a teenager.  His kids, whom he shares custody of with his pregnant ex-wife, are Robbie (Justin Chitin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning).  Rachel mostly screams and acts scared while Robbie barely tries to hide his hatred for his father.  Ray works at the docks, wears a dirty Yankees cap and doesn’t consider hummus food.  He’s a real blue-collar type of guy.  He’s an everyman, is the point I think.  This contrasts with his ex-wife and her new husband who dress nicely, neatly and probably attend galas.

One of the problems with this film is the role played by the main character, Ray.  Spielberg has made a variety of ‘monster’ films already, including Jaws and Jurassic Park as well as films that deal with aliens in a different manner: E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  This film even blends in some of his work from Empire of the SunSaving Private Ryan and Minority Report.

The film is desaturated, and the highlights in each shot seem to glow like the sun bouncing off of wet pavement.  But that kind of brightness isn’t easy on the eyes.  Much of this film is dirty and hard to look at purely form a visual standpoint.  It just adds to a grimy feel which makes sense near the end of the film as everything is dirty, bloody and dead.

But I would’ve liked a film that was brighter, warmer and more in awe of its own creation: the alien tripods.  That might sound a little cheesy, but that’s what Spielberg has been so great at in the past.  That feeling of “awe,” I think was partially due to the technical achievements of what he was doing.  When people think of JawsE.T. and Jurassic Park, they think of all the “how did they do that?” moments.  I love E.T. but I’m more fascinated by how they made ET.  The same goes for the t-rex in Jurassic Park and the shark in Jaws.  I’ve watched behind the scenes videos abut those productions because I’m curious about how they did what they did.  I’m not curious about War of the Worlds because it’s obvious how they did everything: green screen.  The technology, which is definitely impressive on its own, seems to have gotten in the way of the story, much like parts of A.I.  I think the ease of green screen solves problems more quickly and then makes the film require less thought put in.  This is all speculation, but many of these scenes feel hurried, like “just throw Tom and Dakota in front of a green screen and we’ll figure the rest out later.”

I’m getting off track a little bit.  What I wanted to talk about was that sense of awe.  A lot of times it comes from characters who are genuinely fascinated in the ‘monster’ even as if terrorizes them.  You have Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Jaws and in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both personally and deeply invested in the shark and the aliens) and Ian Malcolm and the other paleontologists in Jurassic Park.  These characters studied the creatures that will try to kill them, so there’s more to them than just panic and fear.

In this movie, though, Ray is just an everyman, ordinary guy.  I believe Spielberg and screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp wanted him to be an ordinary person because they wanted to throw a character in the middle of the storm and just see what happens.  This is where you start to get the comparisons to the September 11th attacks.  Beyond just the initial destruction that is reminiscent of the attacks, both kids ask whether or not this is a terrorist attack.

So with Ray as a regular guy, he might be easier to identify with, and his goal is simply to survive and protect his children.  His ex-wife makes this clear when she drops them off at his house earlier by stating exactly “protect our children” as if she knew something was going to happen.  So that’s what the film is about: protection and survival.  It’s a bit dumb, I think, because the writer might be saying “Ray has to prove he can protect his kids, so we’ll have him protect them from aliens and that will really prove how good of a father he is!”

Most of the film involves Ray and his two kids just being near the action and close enough to it in order for there to be enough action set pieces to sell the movie.  A lot of these moments are ridiculous because they’re hard to follow in the grand scheme of things.  Sure, we’re not supposed to know what the aliens’ plan is or what’s going on from a broader perspective, but some information about the aliens’ methods is conveyed from the start.  We know that they just march over a city and vaporize people like it’s nothing.  Ray is right there from the start, as one of the pods rises out of the ground, so he sees this all first hand.  Everyone starts running away, and people get vaporized.  The aliens, though, don’t stop to make sure they’ve vaporized absolutely everyone, instead they just keep on walking, vaporizing the ones they get and ignoring the ones they miss.  This establishes that the aliens will kill what they can, and they’re probably more concerned about the bigger picture rather than getting every last person.  And yet later on you have a scene in which Ray, Rachel and creepy Tim Robbins hide in a basement, and an alien camera comes inside and looks around the place.  The scene is too long, and it just involves our protagonists being quiet.  The camera leaves, a few more aliens come in, they all hide yet again, then the aliens leave.  I don’t know how many aliens tripods or how many aliens there are, but it didn’t seem like there were enough to waste time searching the basement of this farmhouse in the middle of… what feels like nowhere.  It seems like the aliens would concentrate on the big cities.  Oh yeah, then a little while later the alien camera comes back.  Why?  This is so inefficient on the aliens’ part.  Maybe it’s another alien tripod, but you’d think they know how to communicate so they don’t overlap each other’s jurisdiction.

It just seems so implausible that there are enough alien tripods so that Ray is always so close to the action considering he’s an everyman who’s just hiding out.  If the story really wanted him to be so close to the action they should’ve made him a character with a profession that would get him there, like the characters in Jaws or Jurassic Park.  He should have a reason to get close to the aliens, but since he doesn’t, the aliens just come to him.

Finally, because Ray is just hiding the whole time, the script suddenly decides he needs to be more active.  He and Rachel are lifted into some sort of alien prison, of which there are two on each tripod.  These things hold the humans until the alien needs to suck one up to kill and/or eat.  Ray and Rachel are there for maybe a minute when the first guy is consumed.  Then maybe a few more minutes pass before they reach down for another person.  If the aliens consume people that quickly, the prisons need to be much more occupied.  It’d be like me going to the grocery store to stock up on food for the entire week, and all I buy is a banana, a can of beans and one bagel.  I get home and immediately eat the bagel.  How is the rest going to last that long?

Anyways, that’s a small complaint, but I complain nonetheless.  So Ray is the second person grabbed, and you know what?  Everyone suddenly decides to help pull Ray back, like they care if he dies.  They didn’t care when the last guy died, so why would they care about Ray?  He had been in that prison for only a few minutes, so it’s not like he was there long enough to charm everyone like Viktor in The Terminal.  So yeah, they pull him back, and he’s inside the alien tripod just long enough to release a grenade he had picked up minutes before.  The grenade explodes, the tripod crashes, and the jail falls into a tree.  The height of the fall would be enough to kill almost all of the people in the prison thing, but they all survive.

Ray and Rachel keep on keeping on, and then they see that another alien tripod died… just because.  No one knows why.  There’s another tripod (there are as many as the story needs at any given moment), and birds land on it, revealing its shields are down.  Ray points this out to the military, and then they shoot it down.  Okay, so first of all, I don’t know why a bunch of crows would land on the machine.  It wasn’t covered in guts from what I could tell, so why would crows be drawn to this metallic object that is still moving?  It’s not at rest at all, in fact, it would provide for a bumpy ride.  Second, why does Ray have to point out to the military that the shields are down?  The military would most definitely notices because there are enough of them to pay attention.

This is all so irritating to watch, and it seems the screenwriters just wanted to make sure Tom Cruise had enough to do so that he’s not just there unnecessarily.  Anyways, Ray and Rachel make it to his ex-wife’s place in Boston.  Robbie is there too.

Robbie had run off earlier in the story when the script deemed him unnecessary.  Early in the story, Robbie likes to point out to Ray how bad of a father he is, claiming that Ray is only taking the kids to Boston so that he can ditch them with their mother.  Whether or not this is true, its purpose is to establish how far apart Ray and the kids are.  Ray understands what Robbie sees in him.  So that’s Robbie’s character’s purpose.  Rachel’s purpose is just to be saved, by Ray so he can prove to the movie audience that he’s a good father.  Robbie’s character raises the question, and Rachel’s character answers the question.

So once Robbie has his moment and raises the question, he is no longer important.  Rachel is more childish anyways, so she’s a clearer representation of what it means for a parent to protect a child.  Rachel can’t do anything for herself, so Ray will really have to go all out to save her.  Anyways, I’m probably just repeating myself.  Once Robbie is no longer integral to the plot, he runs away to join the army and join the fight.  It’s a ludicrous moment because why does Robbie so desperately want to fight?  That’s never made clear other than a few moments where he seems interested in what’s going on.  Also, what the hell is he going to do?  He runs off into battle alongside tanks.  He doesn’t even have any brass knuckles to fight with.  Of course he survives, but that kind of danger would surely kill him.

That’s it, I guess.  This movie feels bitter, and I feel bitter for having seen it.  There’s some Morgan Freeman voice over at the beginning and end, and there are a bunch of problems with it.  I think the voiceover script is from the original story, but I’m not 100% sure.  At the beginning, Freeman tells us that the aliens were envious of us as humans.  I’m not sure why, but it immediately ascribes personality to these aliens much like the t-rexes in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.  The story would be better without this, because it might help preserve the mystery of why they’re here on Earth.  Maybe if they didn’t attack right away either, that could help the story too.  The audience needs to be engaged, and that means more than just watching Tom Cruise run away from things.  Additionally, giving this kind of attribute to the aliens feels like the movie is already admitting defeat, thinking “we’ve gotta make these aliens angry because it’s not like aliens are interesting enough already.” They’re aliens, we love aliens and watching them attack us.  Just let them be what they are, and we’ll try to figure out what’s going on.  The Morgan Freeman voice at the end tells us that a billion people died, and it seems to indicate that the alien tripods got sick and died right when the reached their quota of those one billion people.  Freeman then says that humanity has earned its right on earth, fighting off the aliens like an infection, but fighting off just means paying the toll which is 1 billion lives.  I guess you could read this as us getting out of hand and needing to pay a tax, but… okay, that’s it?

Look, the story wants us to be on the ground the whole time with Everyman Ray.  The point of this most clearly is to throw us into the action with little perspective, kind of like the soldiers in the Omaha Beach Invasion in Saving Private Ryan.  So the purpose is that we’re not allowed to know what’s going on, we just have to survive it.  Okay, I can understand that, but then the voiceover immediately goes against that by giving us this omniscient perspective (basically God since Freeman did play God in 2003’s Bruce Almighty) to inform us on why everything happened.  There’s no way anyone on Earth would ever figure out that’s why the alien tripods died.  It would forever be a mystery, and I think that mystery is worth preserving until the very end.  If other films wanted us to figure out the mystery, it makes sense that the answers would be in the film, but if the story wants to keep the mystery in tact, then it makes sense not to ever answer it.  Let us know that some things aren’t answerable.

So this is a movie with grating characters, washed out color, not great green screen and changing perspectives.  Maybe the opening and ending voiceover is a way to distance the audience from the characters onscreen, so we can pat ourselves on the back, confident that we’re not as irritating as Ray, Rachel and Robbie.  I don’t know, I really don’t know how to end this post.  I feel like I’m out of breath from typing, and yet there’s so much more I want to say, as if me not listing all the problems means Spielberg might repeat them in his future work.  Beyond the fact that almost everyone and possible everyone will never read this, Spielberg is already a competent director who I wouldn’t expect to make choices or neglect certain story elements as he did here.  Who am I to even say he did make any mistakes?  He’s a great filmmaker, so maybe everything here was a certain way for a reason.  If that’s the case, then this is what I think he’s trying to say:  People suck sometimes, we’re not special so we might be wiped out by some sort of attack from a species smarter and stronger than us.  These characters are broad and cliched because they actually exist.  There are people like this, stereotypes and character types exist for a reason.  I (spielberg) am not trying to be original, I’m just trying to put a modern, albeit pessimistic spin on a famous story.  And this story is pessimistic because I (spielberg) think the world is a little more jaded than it used to be.  I (spielberg) think we’re all a little scared by the events of 9/11 and similar terrorist activity, and I think that fear turns into anger and violence, like the scene in which Ray, Rachel and Robbie are forced from their car by the mob.  There’s not much sense in the violence we have seen, it just happens, and when you hear about a number of deaths from a particular event, like the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, there begins to seem a certain inevitability to that number.  Because you weren’t there when it happened, and you’ve always heard that number, you are conditioned to feel like that number was predetermined, as if the Germans said ‘once we get to 6 million, we’re done.’  So that’s why the aliens kill 1 billion, and that’s why it is set in stone that once they hit that amount, they’re done.  I’m basing this all off of how it feels to both experience this kind of disaster (from the perspective of Ray) and also to read about it much more analytically as someone who never experienced that disaster (from the perspective of Morgan Freeman’s voiceover).  I (spielberg) want to present to you both sides; how it feels to look at an event from deep within it and then how public perception shifts as time goes on and wounds heal.  In the grand scheme of things, nothing matters, even a widespread alien attack becomes normalized after enough time has passed.

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