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WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) Review

You’re not ready for this. I can state that with absolute certainty.

This isn’t the warm fuzzy Spielberg that makes you feel all safe. This is DUEL Spielberg. I wouldn’t say JAWS cuz, frankly this film doesn’t have the “sense of fun” that JAWS had… That adventure feeling. DUEL wasn’t an adventure – it was a man desperately clinging to life – tormented for reasons beyond his ability to understand. It was unrelenting.

But there’s a kid. A cute one in WAR OF THE WORLDS – well that cute kid – she gets given the Christian Bale Shanghai Trauma. She’s a smart little kid, but she’s a little kid and she crawls into a dark place inside herself, and she will never be the same after her experiences here. So this isn’t ShortRound kid, this isn’t Smiley Joel Osment, this isn’t Elliott -- Remember the look on Brody’s kid’s face after he saw that man eaten by Bruce in JAWS? That, “I don’t think he’ll ever go in the water again” look? That sort of kid performance, where you believe that perhaps they drugged the kid, beat em with a rubber hose, shocked ‘em between takes, shot a puppy off camera… It’s that sort of thing.

It’s got Tom Cruise. Yeah, but who the hell is Tom Cruise these days. I mean, prior to this year I thought I had a handle on who Tom was. He was a perfect marketing machine, whose off screen life had him saving people from death, marrying beautiful stunning women and quietly being a part of Scientology. None of that matters to me though, cuz what keeps my interest with Tom is his choice in projects, roles and partners in the world of film. I like how Tom puts himself in Director’s hands and let’s them get what they need out of him. Lazy directors just go for the All-American Tom Cruise… Great directors like Crowe, Mann, Oliver Stone, P.T.A., Kubrick and now Spielberg… They tend to use Cruise counter to his mainstream image. Here… Cruise gives one of his absolute best performances.

Then there’s Spielberg… Steven hampered by a way too short shooting schedule and post time… Thrives like he hasn’t in Decades. In the past 20 years, Steven has made films I admire and like quite a bit. But I haven’t been AWED by Steven for an entire film – start to finish since probably CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Yes, I know RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was in-between – but Raiders was never real… it was always filled with characters that didn’t live in my world, but the fantasy world of Serials and Popcorn fare. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS though… it devastated me. Dreyfus was 100% real to me. He lived in my time – in the seventies. He was a fun eccentric dad that’d take me to PINNOCHIO and GOOFY GOLF… Play with HO scale models and trains… The sort of dad that if he saw UFO’s would definitely come pick up the family to go see em too. But then the fanaticism took over, broke apart the family… and by the end… My jaw was just on the floor.

Well, I have to say – in Steven’s entire career he’s never made anything quite like this. It has the gut punch ouch of the raiding of the Ghetto in SCHINDLER’S LIST – I know that’s hard to imagine given this is a fictional story… but there’s imagery here… Imagery that I’ve only heard stories about. When 9/11 happened, my girl friend at the time lived in Queens – she still does. She told me stories of ash raining down – business papers falling from the sky… and the smell. Well, Spielberg isn’t doing THAT imagery – instead he plays this 100% real. When you see a Tripod unleash… when you see it do what it does – when you see the reactions it gets out of Tom and his two kids (Justin and Dakota) it sells it. This isn’t an awe film – it’s exactly what Steven set out to make, the American Survivors Tale. The Modern Holocaust. And it’s tougher than SCHINDLER’S… it’s more along the lines of THE PIANIST.

I love H.G. Wells’ book WAR OF THE WORLDS. Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS I love even more. George Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, I love even more. BUT then there’s this. The adaptation of material has been exquisite. The beats are essentially similar – most to the Welles radio play. The result is a sense of immediacy, urgency and visceral power that I honestly feel you’ve never seen out of Steven. There was a 45 minute part of the film where I felt my bottom lip trembling and I was literally gripping my seat for a death grip. It was that intense.

That’s it for the spoiler free side of this. There’s some stuff that I want to discuss, simply because well – I am just dying to discuss things in even greater detail. So – beware of spoilers – and I really recommend that you do not read below this point. The more you can just sort of walk into this not knowing what to expect – the better. Trust me – just see it without seeking spoilers – you’re in for something extraordinarily special from Steven this time.

First – I’d like to tackle in greater detail Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier. For the first time in a billion years – Steven has a 100% real modern blue collar fella. Ray’s a prick, an arrogant overgrown child, he’s that guy that was the badass at High School sports – but not good enough to get a scholarship to go anywhere. I think he knocked up the High School Cheerleader (Miranda Otto) and she stuck with him… through his steel grip on his own myopic obsession with his lot in life. How fucked over he was by the weight of her and those kids. He probably blames them for not going to college, instead of his own shit grades. He doesn’t want the family car, he wants his Mustang, cuz it’s cool. His house is a single “boys with toys” residence… Engine taken apart in his kitchen, nothing in the fridge, house a total mess. He resents his kids, but I think he loves Miranda’s Mary.. and feels shame for not being able to be the man she’s currently married to. A successful “well-off” emotionally grounded man that provides everything he couldn’t begin to. And it pisses him off. He feels his ex-wife judges him, his kids judge him.

I completely buy Tom Cruise in this character. His ability to project a complete lack of empathy for most anyone, but himself and what’s his… He is INSTANTLY transformed by what he sees. He commits grand theft, is willing to commit vehicular homicide, he will use his gun on others, he thinks the worst of others, and that gives him the intellectual security to do what he will to others to ensure his survival and that of his kids. Anybody else is expendable.

Cruise’s performance is absolutely riveting. Mainly because he is so alive moment to moment in this film. He’s just had his world destroyed. He has no idea how to really handle any of this – his big plan is to get to his ex-wife, you get the idea that she saved his ass after so many mistakes and irresponsible snafus – that it isn’t funny – and I definitely have the idea that he’s lost without her. Lost in terms of organizing his life, crisis management and most importantly… in dealing with his kids. This really isn’t about a scene here or there that Cruise shines in – it’s just compelling throughout.

Dakota Fanning – supporting actress nominee possibility. She’s that good. Her freak-out in the car… her education of dad regarding Hummus and Peanut butter – great. But… The river, the blindfold, deuce coup, the basket and the look she gives Dad after. It’s just fantastic. At no point does it seem she isn’t in the situation she is in. 100% believable and heart-breaking. I’ve enjoyed her work in other films, but this is just another level altogether.

Justin Chatwin plays Tom Cruise’s son. He really dislikes his father, and with good reason. Most likely you’ve never seen him act before, unless you were a huge fan of SUPERBABIES: BABY GENIUSES 2, but Justin’s big breakthrough is in a film that Dreamworks is releasing later this summer called THE CHUMSCRUBBER. In that, Justin plays a real bastard of a kid – and here. Here he plays a kid outraged by what is going on. He’s disgusted to be “running away” – he still has that ridiculous notion of standing up and fighting these aliens. His sense of family is a bit off… at times he really seems to be a great big brother to Dakota – but Tom’s character has influenced Robbie more than he would like to admit. He’s just as self-centered, but he’s probably smarter than his father.

Overall the family unit on the run is incredibly believable and real. This is the most grounded in modern culture film that Spielberg has made in decades. The characters feeling absolutely alive and in the moment on screen. Really can not express that enough.

As for the Tripods. Absolute mutherfuckers. These things… Jesus. From the sound design to the visual effects work… They’re a nightmare. The sound of the energy beam, the fury and horror of its results. When it very first makes its appearance, and Tom is running for his life and people around him burst into ash that he runs through, being covered in. It’s a nightmare. Just a fucking nightmare. The look on his face when he’s home, he’s absolutely bug-fucked. You can see his entire mind and body shutting down. The only thing that snaps him too is the touch of his daughter and then looking in that mirror and seeing the ash of neighbors upon his skin. This is absolutely haunting. Brilliant work by Koepp, Spielberg and Cruise.

Now – I’m gonna discuss the ending. This movie ends as quickly as it starts. It is faithful to the book. Mankind is not responsible for its salvation. The end narration is in the closing words of the novel. Whether you believe it to be a religious conclusion or not – is up to you. Personally – if it was God, I don’t really accept that, cuz if there is a God, then these creatures are His creatures too. Rather, I believe the aliens rushed into something without fully thinking it through. In colonizing another world, how can one pretend to adequately analyze the billions of factors that could react to your existence. From people to sub-atomic items. I have always loved this ending, and it is absolutely the ending that HAS to be there.

The film is much closer to the source material than most would first think. The lightning as a distraction to the creatures arriving to occupy their machines already here. Even the things coming up from underground… ultimately the war machines come out of a crater. The people are witnessing a bizarre and curious activity that they have no frame of reference to. The Ray weapon in many ways is like the one in the book – but also combines aspects of the black gas in a way.

The main thing about this film is that this is absolutely amongst the very best Steven Spielberg films ever made. I am absolutely shook to the core by the film. This is a film with hardcore vintage sci-fi imagery given a power and weight that was inconceivable in its relevance to today. The film succeeds at the absolutely same level as Welles and Pal did. Perfect creations for the times they were made… and I believe it will resonate dramatically with today’s audiences.

This is the very best film I’ve seen this year.

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