woe of the worlds

July 3, 2005

Steven Spielberg returns with the blockbuster War of the Worlds that stars big names like Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning.

Let’s try that again:

Steven ‘Subtlety of an Elephant’ Spielberg returns with the blockbuster War of the Worlds that stars big names like Tom ‘I am in love with Katie Holmes’ Cruise and Dakota ‘I’m such a cute child star’ Fanning.

Throw in a script involving aliens and pretty much you’re in very safe Spielberg territory. Which is not to say that the movie wasn’t, as a whole, enjoyable. I was chilled to the bone and scared pretty much shitless (a feat even for flatulent me – ok haha joking!). But as with Spielberg, the good ideas are never fully developed, and the endings seem far too convenient to give the movie a sense of closure. Issues are thrown up but not explored, loose ends are left flapping.

But along the way Spielberg manages to impress. With an astoundingly light touch towards the middle of the movie, he shows how so much fear and suspense can be created by what is not seen rather than what is seen – a Hitchcockian twist to the alien theme. And when Spielberg does bloody he really does bloody – no gore is spared, no bone left unburnt. The cold and alluring beauty of cityscapes are transformed into a steaming and compelling dystopian nightmare. The robots are fearsome, serpentine collosi which stalk and spurn the earth, vaporising humans and destroying buildings in their wake, spitting blood over the ruined land. Spielberg has an eye for excess, no-one else without his venomous visionary could even attempt Wells’s classic.

Tom Cruise gives a convincing performance as a dull divorced dad whose children hate him. The journey from New York, where the ex-wife has left the children with him, to Boston, where she has gone to visit her parents, becomes a sort of pilgrimage, a spirit-quest, a soul-searching, during which he may redeem himself and finally earn the love and trust of his children. Cruise is sultry-sulky as he plays the irresponsible cad who must rise to the occasion and become the responsible dad, and brings much to Spielberg’s production. This is not their first successful collaboration: Minority Report also starred a desperate Cruise on the run, to great effect.

Dakota Fanning is the perfect phobic clingey daughter, whose upbringing in the WASPish maternal side of the family immediately puts her at odds with her father. Imbuing her whines with extra whinge or her screams with extra shrill, Fanning proves herself to be one of the most talented young actresses of this age, and is becoming a starlet to watch.

Which makes the premise so very promising: this could be a very interesting family-parable, where a broken family works through its family history to become whole again. Or it could be a mad condemnation of ‘fighting-spirit’ type films where the hero triumphs by facing his enemy, no matter how madly stacked against him the odds are (as in, The Sands of Iwo Jima): a clever inversion, sometimes the bravest thing is to run. It could have turned out to be an indictment of the unilaterally powerful America. It could have been a statement against deprivation and desperation (the most powerful image, in my opinion, was everyone clamoring for the only functioning car remaining, that belonging to Cruise’s character). It could even be all of the aforementioned.

But not. The convenient biological ending reduces the movie to a sort of darwinist statement which vaporises the flesh from the film, leaving only a hollow dusty skeleton. I would have liked to see Spielberg tackle the tough issues, instead of relying on his typical aw-shucks feel-good formulas which he pulls out of his convenient bag-of-tricks. Can anyone say ‘Blue Fairy’? Does anyone remember the happy ending in Minority Report?

Which kind of makes the film a metaphor of itself. The journey from New York to Boston is so wonderful; the audience is at the edge of their seats just dying to know how they escape. Yet when they get to Boston the robots have gone out not with a bang but with a whimper. Just as the magical journey of the movie could have been so much more satisfying, but by eventually choosing to skirt around the important issues he has thrown up, Spielberg comes up with a movie whose course is properly exciting, but whose ending is, ultimately, soulless. A spectacle in every sense of the word.


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