Watching Tom Cruise fleeing giant mechanized alien tripods for most of “War of the Worlds” is liable to confuse some viewers. Ethan Hunt wouldn’t run to his ex-wife so she can save the day; John Anderton would have slipped on his jetpack and gone to battle; and Maverick certainly wouldn’t be hauling ass in a hijacked mini-van. The film’s biggest problem is the decision to have it both ways. The filmmakers want the Everyman Tom, who flees the invasion, and the Action Hero Tom, who can dodge alien heat rays and exploding buildings when everyone else gets fried around him. It’s very much a case of wanting your cake and eating it, too.
Such is the Steven Spielberg mega budgeted “War of the Worlds”, a film that wants to be gritty and dark, but is nevertheless encumbered by the need to be trendy and “cool”. The movie follows the same narrative thrust as the smaller budgeted (as in, about $200 million dollars smaller, give or take) “H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds”. That is, aliens arrive, tripods are revealed, the extermination of the human species commences, humans run, keep running, and run some more. At its core, Spielberg’s version follows the family of dockworker Ray Ferrier (Cruise) and his rebellious teen son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious 10-year old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, “Man on Fire”).
It’s quickly established that our main man Ray is something of a deadbeat dad. His children have been living with his ex-wife (Miranda Otto, “Flight of the Phoenix”) and her perfect new husband. Ray is a stranger to the kids, and they to him. When the aliens (apparently not Martians) land, using lightning as camouflage to burrow deep into the Earth where they mount their tripod war machines which, we learn, have been buried down there since around the dawn of man, the fit royally hits the shan, and Ray and the kids begin their run for survival along with the entire human population.
Stripped of the special effects and world-destroying alien machines, “War of the Worlds” is a simple story of a family of refugees running for their lives. Even as people get disintegrated into puffs of white cloud by the tripods’ rays (which are white, not green), the story’s focus remains firmly on the survival of Ray and his offspring. Though undoubtedly blessed with top-notch special effects and a director that has been making big-budget spectaculars like this for the last 30 years, “War of the Worlds” has the makings of a great adventure.
Unfortunately, the result is muted and confusing, and we haven’t even gotten to the film’s problematic plot yet. When the explosions stop and the tripods disappear into the horizon, questions arise. Without revealing the film’s ending for those who haven’t read the book, or seen other versions of the movie, the film’s unsatisfactory conclusion provides the film’s greatest plot hole, which is: If the invaders have hidden their war machines underneath the Earth for thousands of years waiting for this one moment, and are capable of building such fine war vehicles as the hulking, seemingly indestructible (they are equipped with shields, too) tripods, surely they are also advance enough to be able to study the Earth’s atmosphere for hidden dangers?
There are three standout sequences in “War of the Worlds”. The first is the introduction and reveal of the first tripod, which is one of those iconic images Spielberg does so well. The second is watching Ray attempt to drive through a crowd in their mini-van, only to be stopped and assaulted by desperate refugees. The third is also the film’s Third Act, and takes place in the basement of a mentally unbalanced survivalist played by Tim Robbins. Although Robbins’ character initially saves our heroes from the battlefield, he proves to be even more dangerous than the alien machines. The scene where Ray makes a fateful decision to deal, once and for all, with the out-of-control Robbins is so perfect, you wish Spielberg had chosen to do a braver, grittier film.
If spectacular set pieces are what you’re after, the film delivers. To his credit, Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski beautifully paint the chaotic landscape with giant stalking tripods zapping and grabbing up victims as they go. There are a number of scenes that just features the tripods at work, and they’re all breathtaking. These massive things, that look like a visionary from the 1950s invented them, are wondrous to behold. Unfortunately after a while, even the tripods lose their impact. We get a look at the aliens that pilots the tripods at one point, although it might have been a better idea never to show them, because once they’re revealed, all mystery about them disappears.
“War of the Worlds” entertains, which is why it works as a Summer Event film. Will you remember it 10 years from now as being one of Spielberg’s best? Probably not, although the images of the first tripod emerging out of the street will be a classic for years to come. And although his turn as an Everyman isn’t entirely successful, Cruise is physical enough to sell his many dashes from certain death. The soulful Dakota Fanning doesn’t quite make a convincing 10-year old child, mostly because one look into the girl’s eyes and you know she has no clue how to act like a real 10-year old. As a result, Fanning spends most of her screentime either crying or screaming or both at the same time. The most convincing character is Justin Chatwin’s rebellious Robbie, who switches from scared to angry to righteous without missing a beat. This kid has an amazing career ahead of him.
Ultimately, one can’t help but feel as if “War of the Worlds” misses an opportunity to be more than what it is. If Tom Cruise is going to be able to dodge disintegration rays that vaporizes everyone around him, or defeat tripods with a couple of accidental grenades, it seems a foolhardy choice to write Ray Ferrier as being your next door neighbor. My neighbor can’t bring down an alien war machine, and he can’t race down a city block as everything is obliterated around him. Perhaps Spielberg should have done the smart (and courageous) thing and cast an unknown for Ray Ferrier, since at this point in his career, I don’t think you could blackmail Tom Cruise into playing anything other than an Action Hero. It’s not his fault; he just does it so well.
Steven Spielberg (director) / H.G. Wells (novel), Josh Friedman, David Koepp (screenplay)
CAST: Tom Cruise …. Ray Ferrier
Justin Chatwin …. Robbie Ferrier
Dakota Fanning …. Rachel Ferrier
Tim Robbins …. Ogilvy
Miranda Otto …. Mary Ann Ferrier