Published at: June 29, 2005, 5:09 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Steven Spielberg is, simply put, the finest orchestrator of set pieces working in motion pictures at any level right now. He may well be the finest orchestrator of set pieces who has ever worked in motion pictures. He has such an innate understanding of how to use set-ups and payoffs and how to make each gain a unique and complete idea that he routinely creates movie moments that shame anyone else creating mainstream entertainment. There will be plenty of people who are so overwhelmed by the moments that are great in WAR OF THE WORLDS that they will not be able to resist a rush of hyperbole to anyone who asks how it was. You will hear the word “masterpiece” bandied about. You may even hear people compare it to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or JAWS.
Whatever WAR OF THE WORLDS is, it ain’t RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and it ain’t JAWS.
There are a few things that make Spielberg such a fascinating film artist, and of all his peers, the guys he came up with, he’s the only one who I truly think has maintained every bit of the energy and ability and inventive playfulness that defined him in his youth, while also accumulating some real soul over the years that manifests in the strangest ways in his films now. Lucas has become more and more insular over the years, Coppola burned too bright to last, Milius is a genius but drives the money guys crazy, De Palma’s touched by brilliance but can vanish up his own ass at the drop of a hat, Schrader’s got the whole God thing he’s still working out, Scorsese’s class all the way but uneven at the most confusing times, and Zemeckis is better with the toys, but he just doesn’t seem to care about the scripts anymore. Of all of them, Spielberg is the one who continues to matter in a commercial sense and, I would argue, in an artistic sense. His films aren’t events because marketing people tell us they are events. His films are events because we all know that when he brings his “A” game, he has the ability to burn images into our consciousness like the very Hand Of God itself.
Growing up, I remember the first time I felt like Spielberg had punched a hole in my brain. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Saw it at the drive-in. My parents hadn’t let me see JAWS when it came out, so I didn’t know Spielberg’s work yet. I was still just starting out as a raving movie fanatic. STAR WARS had definitely sparked my imagination earlier in the year, and I was hungry for more. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS seemed almost impossibly dense to me that first time I saw it. There was so much going on all over the world, so many characters, so many different storylines all happening at the same time, and I wasn’t quite sure I got the way it all tied together. But then everyone got to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and that mothership came down, and suddenly, it didn’t matter why everyone came together. It just made sense that they were all drawn for their own reasons, and they all had to be in this one place to witness this one thing, and it was every bit as magical and amazing and awe-inspiring as it would have been if it was happening for real. To a seven year old kid, it might as well have been real. When RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK came out, Spielberg pushed it even further, and the “HOLY SHIT!” moment in that film for me was when Belloq unleashed the Wrath of God. It was so far beyond what I expected to see in a fun little summer movie, so powerful and disturbing and unforgettable. It wasn’t even something you could spoil for anyone else, because you couldn’t just tell them what it was like. It was the combination of the remarkably designed special effects, the unearthly sounds, the performances (“IT’S BEAUTEEEEEFUL!!”), and that brilliant John Williams score. I don’t think I breathed the entire time that scene unfolded, and even went I went back and saw the film over and over that summer, it kept working on me the exact same way.
Maybe my favorite moment like that in any of his films is the T-Rex attack in the first JURASSIC PARK. I was working at Universal Studios as a tour guide the summer that film came out. We’d watched them shooting it all over the lot for six months leading up to the film’s release, and security had been tight. Even on the lot, no one had gotten a good look at the dinosaurs. We knew they had full-sized robots on some of the stages, but doors were kept firmly closed, and guards were posted everywhere. If you remember that summer, you remember there were no pictures leaked. Everyone kept reprinting the same image of the foot in the mud, because that’s all anyone had.
They showed the film to the tour guides just about a week before the film came out, just as the trades reviewed it. VARIETY ran the first photo of a dinosaur’s face that I saw anywhere, a small square picture of the T-Rex, but it was hard to tell what to think based on that. When we walked into that theater, the film hit us cold, and it hit us hard. I have problems with the way the movie’s built. I think it takes its time getting started, and not in a good way. I think it’s fairly clunky in terms of plot mechanics, and there’s a whole lot of coincidence that keeps things moving. But when that T-Rex escaped and attacked those two trucks on that road in the rainstorm, I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “Boy, I wish they’d handled the exposition a little better.” I was thinking, “Oh, fuck, I would hate to die being eaten. Oh, my god, this is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. Sweet God, Spielberg went out and found real dinosaurs and they’re going to eat those kids and I don’t want to see this and AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!” And I wasn’t alone, either. The temperature in the Alfred Hitchcock Theater on the lot went up by at least ten degrees during that scene. People were gripped by pure animal panic, and Spielberg managed to milk it for at least forty minutes there. It wasn’t the CGI that made JURASSIC PARK all that money. It was the fact that Spielberg connected with something buried deep inside our collective memory, the sensation of being a small furry thing in a world of giant predators, afraid of being eaten. It was primal, and people went back over and over and over again just to experience that adrenaline rush. I know I saw it five times at the Avco, which was still the original un-fucked giant downstairs house at the time, the first DTS theater in Los Angeles, with JURASSIC being the first DTS release. It was addictive because it was so effective, and it didn’t matter if nothing else in the film worked.
My guess is that Spielberg’s desire to make WAR OF THE WORLDS comes from watching empty CGI spectacles being rolled out summer after summer, movies like VAN HELSING that ladle on special effects so dense and busy that audiences don’t even know what they’re looking at anymore. Remember... JURASSIC PARK had a total of 65 CG effects shots in the whole film. He used it sparingly, and he leaned on the actual construction of the moment, the use of suspense and performance and audience empathy. He created a scene, not a demo reel for a new type of software. My guess is that WAR OF THE WORLDS was meant to school everyone in exactly how to do it again.
Close. But not quite.
One of the things that strikes me upon reflection is how severely lacking WAR OF THE WORLDS is in something that distinguishes Spielberg from even his most ardent imitators: humor. Spielberg is genuinely funny. It’s odd that his biggest flop is still thought to be 1941, because Spielberg is just as good as prying a huge laugh loose from an audience as he is at squeezing out the tears or unleashing real terror. In the forty minutes of JURASSIC PARK that start with the T-Rex attacking the trucks and end with the T-Rex chasing Laura Dern’s jeep, there are just as many giant laughs as there are big scares. I think it’s one of the reasons the sequence works so well. WAR OF THE WORLDS has a few wry smiles in it, but for the most part, prepare yourself for one big giant bummer that is all about fear. If you thought BATMAN BEGINS played things serious, that film plays like the Adam West ‘60s version compared to how dour WAR OF THE WORLDS is. For the most part, Spielberg’s got one thing on his mind: scaring you. This may be the most aggressive nightmare he’s ever committed to film, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t take a child under ten to see this film for any reason. There’s no pressure valve here, no moments of wonder to balance out the horror. That’s a good thing if what you’re looking for is a roller-coaster ride that plays explicitly on the fears of a post-9/11 populace, but if you’re looking for a film that hits more than one note, this isn’t it.
Tom Cruise is good in the film, particularly in the way he interacts with two other specific actors, Tim Robbins and Dakota Fanning. It’s not a particularly deep role. Ray Ferrier is not a character so much as he is a type, the Bad Dad. He wants to be the Good Dad, but he screwed up and lost his wife and now she’s remarried and he only sees his kids occasionally and he wants to connect with them but he knows he can’t and so now he’s just accepted his role as the Bad Dad. That’s pretty much it, and Spielberg takes about ten or fifteen minutes to set that up for us and make it crystal clear. Justin Chatwin plays Robbie, Ray’s son, and Dakota Fanning plays Rachel, his daughter. She’s got the better role, since all Robbie ever does is act angry. You know... because Cruise is a Bad Dad. We have to buy that, or the hug you just KNOW is coming won’t matter, right? The badder that Bad Dad is, the more we’ll care when he turns out to be the Good Dad he’s wanted to be all along.
Except... we don’t care. Or I didn’t, anyway. To turn one of Cruise’s new favorite words back on him, I thought the family dynamic at the beginning was “glib.” I thought it was all surface. And I fully acknowledge that it’s one of the perils of the genre. When I go see a film called WAR OF THE WORLDS, I’m not really there to see a tender family drama about reconciliation and forgiveness. I’m there to see aliens and spaceships and... well... the end of the world, quite frankly. About twenty minutes in, the mayhem begins in a really lovely set piece that builds... and builds... and builds... and by the time it reaches full force, you are almost blindsided because Spielberg ratchets things up so well. And he sustains that feeling not through just that one sequence, either, but through the next forty minutes to an hour, stacking up a series of harrowing moments for the Ferrier family as they decide to get the hell out of town and head for Boston, where Ray’s ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto in a role that just barely exists) is supposed to be. Spielberg’s craftsmanship, ably supported as always by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, is absolutely top-notch through this entire stretch of the film, and the fact that we believe the absurd Tripods as figures of menace for even a moment has got to be a sign of just how effective his work is. Once Tim Robbins shows up, the film changes gears and becomes claustrophobic for a while, and even though there are a few great moments during this extended sequence, this is where the film runs out of gas dramatically. Everything after this sequence is simply not as powerful, not as involving, and not as viscerally compelling. Anyone complaining specifically about the ending of the film has (A) never read the book by H.G. Wells and (B) was probably looking for a more conventional action movie finale. I think the actual ending is the least of the movie’s problems, though, because there’s about a half-hour of the film that comes just before that point that feels like Spielberg’s running in place. Everything pre-Tim Robbins is so frightening, so immersive, that he is never able to generate that same level of fear once he defuses it. It’s a structural problem that’s inherent to the material, and it’s obvious that Spielberg was more interested in creating an amalgam of the original novel and the Orson Welles radio drama than he was in pesky li’l internal logic issues. Nightmares don’t always make perfect sense, and Spielberg seems to take that as permission to make a movie that is, in some ways, one of the sloppiest he’s ever made.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d recommend you see this in a theater. The biggest theater you can find, actually, with the best sound system within driving distance of you. There are things in this movie that any fan of the genre owes it to themselves to see and hear and experience. Watching this with a packed house this weekend, you’ll definitely get in touch with that communal reaction thing that makes theater-going more powerful than watching something at home alone on DVD, no matter how good your system. I’m not sure how some people are going to react to seeing a movie that so nakedly borrows the iconography of the World Trade Center attack as well as imagery that directly recalls the Holocaust, especially when this is a film that seems to be principally interested in thrilling the audience. I think it works, but I also think a little bit of this goes a long way, and Spielberg underlines the point several more times than he needs to. I like the choice to make the aliens a cipher throughout the film. We don’t learn anything about them. We don’t get a glimpse into the way they think. There’s no magic translator machine that allows us to have a conversation about motives with them. They are alien. They are completely and utterly beyond understanding to us. It’s nice, but it will frustrate some viewers who demand answers, who want things neatly resolved. David Koepp and Josh Friedman managed to encapsulate everything that H.G. Wells wrote about in their script, and they did a nice job of keeping the focus on normal people instead of the fighter pilots and the President’s cabinet and the various heads of state that these films always focus on. On that level, hats off. And technically speaking, Dennis Muren and Pablo Helman have done some magnificent work here, re-establishing ILM right at the top of the food chain where they belong. It’s one thing to create a film like STAR WARS, where nothing is real and the sets and the props and even some of the characters are all created inside a computer, but it’s much trickier to pull off something that feels handheld and lit by daylight and shot on location like this. There are a few places in the film where the condensed production process shows a bit (check out the CGI reference marks in the tunnel at the end that someone forgot to erase), but only a few. For the most part, the scale of this film is breathtakingly rendered and utterly persuasive, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s this film and not ROTS that ILM is nominated for next spring at the Oscars.
There are even a few shots that remind me of the way Zemeckis will push the envelope just to see what happens, like he did with that infamous mirror shot in CONTACT. Watch for the extended scene where Ray and his kids are in a car, racing away from the city, and the camera swoops around them, in and out of the car, in one unbroken and impossible take. It’s subtle, but once you realize what you’re seeing, it’s enough to make you wish for a rewind button right there in the theater. That’s Spielberg for you, though. He throws away more great visual ideas than many directors will ever have. If this film was intended to school us all on how to build a set-piece, then it’s a success on that level. However, I don’t think this is any sort of grand statement about survival or the human spirit in the face of adversity. It’s a perfect fireworks show for the long July 4th weekend, but as with even the most spectacular fireworks, it was not built to last.