War of the Worlds is directed by Steven Spielberg and is loosely based on the 1898 novel of the same name by H.G. Wells. The film stars Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins, and with Morgan Freeman providing narration.
The science fiction genre really took off in film during the 1950s, with the 1953 Byron Haskin directed feature The War of the Worlds being easily one of the best of that decade. The special effects for that film hold up surprisingly well 60 plus years later, and I have no qualms in stating that The War of the Worlds is far more entertaining than a handful of action and thriller movies to have come out within the past few years. At the same time though, a modern remake of H.G. Wells' sci-fi invasion novel makes all the sense in the world: how exciting would it be to watch this Martian invasion story with today's technology/special effects?
Interestingly enough, Steven Spielberg ended up being the one to spearhead the 2005 remake, with Tom Cruise coming on board because he and Spielberg wanted to work together again after the two collaborated during 2002's Minority Report. While War of the Worlds is not the first time that Spielberg has dealt with extraterrestrial beings (see Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.), it is the first time that he has worked with aliens that actually attack the human race and not provide some sort of benevolent service. I have never thought of Spielberg as an action film director, despite the fact that he has directed several movies that contain extended sequences of violence/mayhem. Considering however, that something like War of the Worlds involves prolonged scenes of aliens killing people and laying waste to entire cities/towns, as well as scenes of the military trying to launch a counterattack against the Martian invaders, I find War of the Worlds to be something of a challenge for Spielberg.
So the story of War of the Worlds is largely the same as it was in H.G Wells' novel and the 1953 film, the only major alteration being the characters and their names. Ray Ferrier (Cruise) works in Brooklyn, New York as a crane operator longshoreman and lives by himself in Bayonne, New Jersey. Ray is divorced from his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and is estranged from his two children: 10-year old daughter Rachel (Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Chatwin). Mary-Ann drops Rachel and Robbie off at Ray's house on her way to visit her parents in Boston. Shortly afterwards, strange weather patterns begin to occur: lightning strikes in the same spots multiple times, and an electromagnetic pulse wipes out all electricity.
Ray goes to join a crowd at one of the sites of the lightning strikes. A massive tripod-looking machine emerges from the ground and begins to destroy the surrounding area, killing mutliple witnesses in the process. Ray manages to escape and get back home to retrieve Rachel and Robbie. They steal a car and begin to drive to Mary Ann's house up in Boston, with Ray learning that multiple tripod attacks have occurred around the world, and that this attack had been planned for millions of years.
In slightly disappointing fashion, War of the Worlds spoils its ending during the opening credits, and for those who take even the slightest bit of curiosity into why the opening credits look the way they do, it's not too difficult to deduce how this war between worlds is going to conclude. In addition, absolutely nothing said or seen during the movie gives the implication that these aliens are indeed from Mars. They are never referred to as "Martians"; they are only referred to as, "Invaders". We just assume the aliens are from Mars because H.G Wells' novel directly states that during the story, Earth is being invaded by Martians. Spielberg himself has stated that the aliens in his film are not Martians, but instead are extraterrestrial beings that come from some other dark corner of the universe. I am a little dismayed by this claim that the aliens in War of the Worlds are not meant to be seen as Martians. It's too much of a deviation from H.G Wells' intentions with his novel and the reasoning behind why it's called, "War of the Worlds". If Spielberg says these invaders are not Martians, then what's to say that the aliens are now just some generic, extraterrestrial being without any proper context, as opposed to the residents of a planet we all know and can identify? I would argue that War of the Worlds is the definitive book/movie about Earthlings vs. Martians, but if Spielberg wants to strip the invaders of their Martian identity, then what makes them any different from other invading alien species that are highly likely to have similar motivations?
- Spielberg does not miss a beat with the special effects and action, with the early scenes of the tripod attacks being some of the most thrilling action sequences that Spielberg has ever directed. Extended shots of people fleeing from the tripod death beams are always shown at or slightly below eye-level, lacking any sort of panoramic viewpoints that would threaten to take the viewer out of the movie for a split second. The camera is like another person who is also there witnessing the alien invasion, and when you couple that feature with some glorious death beam sound effects and John Williams' always reliable soundtrack, it is a wonderful sight to behold. I love the more up-to-date designs of the alien spacecrafts too: they look like dangerous, bright-eyed squids. Even better, Spielberg restrains the action and limits it to only small dosages throughout the film, making every alien attack scene entirely fresh.
- War of the Worlds never loses track of what Ray is going through emotionally and how this alien invasion is truly challenging his ability to be a father to his children. Some of the better scenes in the movie are those when Ray is arguing with Robbie and when he does things with Rachel like sing a good-night song to her. Watching Ray and his children when the aliens aren't on screen is what adds another dimension to the entire movie; the story never loses track of the human being we are most concerned with on the ground, as this is more than just a story of aliens invading and the Earth fighting back. It's also a story of what goes through peoples minds and how they react when put in a perilous situation.
- I gotta be honest, I was getting ready to come here and start raving non-stop about War of the Worlds, until I took some time to fully process the movie and realize that it does have one major shortcoming: the writing takes the movie in some bizarre directions here and there. For starters, Spielberg once again gives in to his worst habit and gives the movie a purely happy ending as opposed to a bittersweet one. Aside from that, the most bizarre writing choice is Robbie suddenly developing this fascination for joining the military, which ends up taking him out of the movie during the climax. There is nothing early on in the movie that even remotely replies Robbie considering joining the armed forces, so this decision makes you think....wait, what? Tim Robbins is also in the movie playing a man named Harlan Ogilvy, but this ends up being one of Robbins' more thankless roles, as he only serves to slow the movie down and disrupt the pacing, although he is part of a tense basement scene involving the aliens. In short, the strange writing choices made throughout puts a damper on the overall story, the characters, and the action, and if that wasn't the case, then I wouldn't hesitate to declare this movie to be pretty frickin' fantastic.
So Spielberg wishing us to not think of these aliens as Martians is always going to bug me, and you know what? I'm going to go on defying Spielberg's claim and think of the aliens in 2005's War of the Worlds as Martians, 'cause that's how H.G. Wells originally intended it to be in his novel, and the movie works so much better when we have an identity to attach to the invading aliens. Where I will give Spielberg endless praise though is in how well he directs the action and special effects, while not skimping too much on the characters that are at the heart of the story. While the writing leaves more to be desired, War of the Worlds still delivers as an entertaining alien invasion spectacle, as Steven Spielberg once again proves that John Williams doesn't have to be his only buddy while working on a film: Tom Cruise is an actor fully capable of matching up with Spielberg's directing prowess. This isn't as good as the two were together during Minority Report, but for a sci-fi remake that could've ended up as just another silly alien invasion film, things turned out pretty well. Let's not totally forget about the 1953 movie though. That one still holds up well to this day.
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