(Originally posted on 7-08-05)
War of the Worlds is a movie with a little black button smack dab in the middle of it. Oh, it’s not a literal or real button or anything like that. It is a figurative button. And even figuratively it isn’t a terribly unique button. Actually, it is a rather drab figurative button and has that dull and slightly scratched look that comes from regular figurative use.
It is not a button that you would think an acclaimed director such as Steven Spielberg would ever use, however, there it is. The effects of this button can vary from film to film, but the end result is generally the same. In this case, half way through the film, when Spielberg (and screenwriter David Koepp) figuratively press it, War of the Worlds goes from a challenging, intense, scary meditation on lost opportunity and fear to a monumentally silly monster movie rife with cliché and an embarrassingly schmaltzy ending.
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a dockworker, more child than responsible adult. On the weekend his two kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), come to stay with him he shows pretty quickly why he is no longer married to their mother. He is unfamiliar with what is going on in the lives of either of them, especially the younger Rachel, and he is threatened by the impending adulthood of Robbie. He is a selfish, irresponsible man who regularly doesn’t bother to see beyond his own needs. Rachel is a wise beyond her years pre-teen, and Robbie is a teen resentful of his father.
From the moment Ray witnesses the arrival of the Alien Tripods, heralded by an unnatural electrical storm, he is on the run. Racing single-mindedly to the home of his ex-wife’s (Miranda Otto) parents in Boston (because that is where she was going and it is the only place he thinks will be safe for his children and by extension for himself), he starts to come face to face with who he is and how those that are close to him see him. The first half of War of the Worlds, when it is dealing with these issues in the shadow of the bigger world, is practically flawless. However, at the mid-point when it slows down to try to deal with the expositional part of the Alien invasion it becomes hopelessly bogged down in its own conceits and blockbuster special effects extravaganza ambitions.
From the moment Tim Robbins’ survivalist character is introduced the focus of the film moves extraordinarily quickly from the conflict within one man as a larger conflict boils around him to a standard action movie and an interpersonal conflict between Ray and the survivalist. The Aliens are seen and in an exceptionally silly scene Tom Cruise gets to maintain his action star cred by fighting back against them.
The first half is an extremely brave take on a well known property; the problem is that Spielberg and his collaborators chicken out and half way through go with the commercial cookie cutter take for the rest of the way – there is a close encounter with Aliens as Ray, Rachel and the survivalist try to stay quiet and not be caught, there is a scene where Ray loses track of Rachel and has to find her and finally there is the inevitable patented Spielberg ending when everything turns out okay.
Spielberg is an intensely talented craftsman, but he has not proven to be a very daring artist. He rarely takes character or story chances in anything he does. He can be experimental technically and craft-wise, but never when it comes to character or story or the things that really feed art. In the first ten minutes of this movie (the silly prologue narrated by Morgan Freeman notwithstanding) I thought that maybe this was the one. And a third of the way through, I thought it was for sure.
But then he pushed that damn button half way through and this wonderfully kinetic and real movie that I was really, truly connecting with became, in the blink of an eye, the same old same old that I sometimes feel like I have seen a million times, and all my hope swirled down the drain and I remembered again why I lost my faith in him long ago.
Literally, not figuratively.