Observed: War of the Worlds
I just saw two worlds at war. One featured a jerk played by Tom Cruise; the other, scores of mucusy metallic aliens reminiscent of the disturbing art of this man. Unfortunately, his influence on art direction in the horror genre has all but run out of steam. To be fair, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds has moments of Hitchockian suspense and paints a nightmarish vision of a full-scale alien invasion in its parts.
But the whole is not quite satisfying. Part of the problem is that Spielberg and writer Josh Friedman (with David Koepp) handled overdiluted material. This telling of War of the Worlds is based on the 1953 Byron Laskin movie, which was based on the 1938 Orson Welles' Mercury Players radio drama, which was based on H.G. Wells' 1898 novel. This War is all worn out. What's left on the screen is a noisy series of clashes and chases with no major plot to settle on, and no hero to root for. Is it about the aliens coming to seed the earth with their own kin? Is it about Tom Cruise's bad dad's bad hair? Is it about a glum teen who's unable to bond with his absentee father? Is it giving long overdue praise to the microbes that no longer kill us?
The movie reunites Spielberg and John Williams (Minority Report, E.T., A.I., Jaws), with Tom Cruise (Minority Report), and with his long-time director of photography Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, Schindler's List). There are the standard Spielberg themes of disrupted family life and weird stuff from outer space getting too close for comfort (E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Dakota Fanning gets to reprise her waif character who's endowed with adult wisdom and patience (I Am Sam, Man on Fire). Speaking of Close Encounters, the sounds made by the evil Tripods in this movie were like demonic versions of the more pleasing musical tones of the huge spacecraft in Close Encounters. If the devil farts, it sounds like a Tripod. I'm just asking: Were all the other space alien names taken? Tripods?)
And I kept trying to understand why the teenaged son was so angry. I mean, his new step dad seemed nice enough, and his old real dad never jumped up and down on his sofa or lectured him about Paxil; and yet his face held a single glum expression. (Side bar query: Did Tim Robbins owe Spielberg a favor? Is that why he signed on to play the crazed bumpkin with a plan to fight back with his trusty axe?)
There is an odd (and possibly deliberate given Mr. Cruise's very public convictions) overlap between the vision of ancient aliens in W of the W and the bizarre teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But I guess you'll have to wait until you're an Operating Thetan III to catch my drift about Xenu's big adventure those 75 million years ago when he seeded the earth with billions of folks and then, oh, ask John Travolta about the rest.
Enough has been said about the way War of the Worlds taps into post 9/11 anxieties about violent foreign invasions, and it's true. One character asks whether it's terrorists. What I appreciated most about the movie was the uncanny, almost dreamlike way Spielberg introduces us to the Tripods. They come not with Take Me to Your Leader demands, but with silent lightning and from behind foreboding cloud formations. You soon realize that any human effort at resistance will be as effective as using a peashooter against a hundred landslides. There are moments of dread, the most unnerving of which are the ones where you can't clearly see the aliens, only pulsing shafts of light behind a wall or glimpses of a Tripod tentacle.
Spoiler warning: And what can you call it but anti-climactic when the final demise of the dreadful aliens has nothing to do with the actions of anyone in particular? Picture Apollo Creed dying of an infected hang nail before Rocky can flatten him in the 15th.
Note to Mr. Spielberg (well, Steve to me): The two missing ingredients that would have added spice and viewer satisfaction are: a dash of comic relief (W of the W is relentlessly grim), and a much more direct confrontation between the Cruise character and the aliens in which he is transformed through the crisis. At the end of the movie he only looks more tired and just as likely to chuck another peanut butter sandwich against a window.