I’d planned on skipping War of the Worlds until it came out on DVD, or at least until I was watching it with someone else. But I was in Japan Town for dinner, one thing led to another, and I caught the late show.
I think Mr. Spielberg has been reading my blog, and I’m sorry I was so hard on the guy. The movie is relatively schmaltz-free, the music is understated, the reaction shots appropriate, and the cast can actually act. Dakota Fanning is just scary good; child stars are not supposed to be able to act that well. (Go Conyers!) And there are even scenes with Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins in them, together, and you don’t want to claw out your eyes or run screaming from the theater. That’s saying quite a bit. It’s pretty much exactly what I asked for — the tense and memorable action scenes that Spielberg is really good at, without the schmaltz and the neat & tidy message.
But man, is the result bleak. I mean, sure, the source material is pretty bleak, and when you do it as realistically as you can manage instead of having a layer of 50’s sci-fi irony on top of it, this is what you get. The reviews I’ve seen all keep saying “intense” and “relentless,” and that’s accurate. This is an old-school horror movie, from when people understood that “horror” meant less gore and cheap surprises, and more horrible things happening to people for no reason and they can’t figure out why or how to stop it. Imagine the T. Rex scene from Jurassic Park with better child actors and no goofy toilet gag, then repeat that for two hours.
So it ends up being very well-done, but kind of hollow. Spectacular effects and full-to-bursting with memorable scenes, but without any real depth to make it resonate. And I think that’s not the fault of the director, or the screenwriter, or any of the actors, but just that that’s as much as anyone could possibly get out of the source material. Adding a “life lesson” more blatant than the “don’t get too cocky, mankind” that’s already in there, would’ve come across as trite.
Instead, they decided to go as realistic as they could manage — no clumsy exposition (the narration just gave it a 50’s sci-fi feel, and was appropriate), no sudden epiphanies or life lessons, no gearing-up-for-the-big-battle, just random death, destruction, and confusion. You’ve got to give them kudos for that. (And kudos for having the leads of the 1953 movie show up in cameos). It ends up being pretty upsetting; when the attacks first start, both the kids ask if it’s “terrorists,” which gives he movie some relevance and makes life outside the theater seem even more dark and pointless.
Also, I’m pretty sure someone involved in the production has played Half-Life 2. Obviously they both use the same source material, but a lot of the scenes in the movie are like a live-action version of the game, with all the weapons to fight back removed. I thought it was neat.
Plus they showed a trailer for Peter Jackson’s King Kong before the movie. I’m going to watch the hell out of that movie. It just looks damn cool.
Spoilers for War of the Worlds after the link…
I’ve read complaints online saying that Spielberg copped out with the ending. I don’t think so. By the end of all that, he could’ve had Lassie come back and E.T. walk out of a tripod and give the little girl a hug. The movie needed something happy to happen after all that. The anti-climactic ending of the original is creepy, but isn’t strong enough to tie everything together. Leaving things open isn’t “daring” or innovative, it just keeps the story from feeling finished.
And I really wish they hadn’t shown the aliens themselves. They were introduced pretty well, but it would’ve been much creepier if we’d never seen them at all. Nothing they could’ve shown would’ve been as scary as the tripods, and having them walking around made them seem less menacing and just plain stupider. They were basically turned into the raptors from Jurassic Park, but not even as cool.