(Image courtesy of Dreamworks & Paramount Pictures )
“Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
– Narrator, “War of the Worlds"
In 1898, H.G. Wells first published the story of “The War of the World” which is arguably the first novel ever written about an alien invasion. This hugely successful novel was later adapted by a young Orson Wells into the historical 1938 radio broadcast that was so detailed in execution that many of it’s listeners believed what they were hearing was actually happening to them. Film, TV shows and stage adaptations will later follow to further solidify this wonderful work of fiction into the minds of the general population. In the latest adaptation of this classic tale, Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” not only strengthen that position but raised the bar by creating a visual and thrilling ride that follows closest to the original vision that H.G. Wells had 107 years ago.
In the movie “War of the Worlds”, Spielberg transports the unfolding events from rural Victorian England to the late 21st century eastern seaboard of the United States. His main protagonist of the story is Ray Ferrier, a blue collared divorcee deadbeat father of two children, who is suddenly thrust into a situations that is beyond his control when outworldly beings activates long buried and dormant killing machines as a precursor to an invasion from outer space. As the 100 feet towering mechanical tripods rained death in the form of disintegrator rays from above, Ray and his brood, the precocious Rachel and rebellious Robbie, struggle to be together as they flee the murderous aliens swath of destructions in hopes of reuniting the family with his ex-wife in Boston.
Their journey takes them through scenes of utter horror and devastations as all efforts to repel the seemingly omnipotent invaders failed in spectacular fashions. The family also face the darkest of human natures when they are surrounded by desperate refugees at the end of their frayed nerves. As without also within, the family unit itself is torn apart by heighten emotions and rebellion. With all forces allayed around him, Ray struggles to forge ahead to keep his promise to his ex-wife that he would look after the children for her. In the end, Ray successfully keeps his promise and along the way grows into the role of a more responsible father.
As Ray Ferrier, Tom Cruise masterfully portrayed the character as being cocky, aloof towards his children and painfully self-absorbed father who has been avoiding his responsibilities in the beginning who as the story unfolds has to learn how to be a father and learn it fast as he takes his children cross-country to be with their mother. Cruise’s interaction with Dakota Fanning who plays Ray’s daughter Rachel is a wonderful study of flip flopping role reversal between the two characters. They play out wonderfully against each other in more that in several occasion as their characters tries to coax the other into a sense of security when the world seems to crumble around them. It is with Rachel that we see Ray’s character growing into a better father. In one humanizing scene, Ray struggles to find a lullaby to comfort his daughter and failing but uses a song he knows instead. To see these two actors in action was truly a joy.
The dynamics between Ray and his rebellious son Robbie, played by an almost unknown Justin Chatwin, is the polar opposite of his relationship with his daughter. In each step both father and son are at loggerheads with each other that they could only work together in an uneasy truce to assure the daughter that they could get through the horrors surrounding them. Chatwin does a satisfactory job portraying the hurt and resentful son but unfortunately was given a weak material to play from. It was hard to fathom his character’s insistence to go and fight the aliens when it seemed all but hopeless even if it meant leaving his sister with a father he does not trust. There were several times that it was hard to find a redeeming trait for this character as he choose to remain isolated not only to his family but also to the viewers who have little to go on in understanding his motivations.
In their cross country flight, they encounter a chatty but creepy survivalist named Harlan, who was played by Tim Robbins, as they tried to hide from the aliens. In the most claustrophobic scenes in the movies the three people spar against each other for survival as Ray realizes that preceding events have left Harlan unhinged and fast becoming a menace to his own survival. I didn’t think that Robbins had much to play from as the character that he was given felt fairly one dimensional and hardly contributed much to the story other than to show the extant that Cruise’s character would go to protect his children and even what that eventually entails is left ambiguous typical of Spielberg’s distaste of the dark side.
The last remaining big character of the movie itself is the aliens themselves. These are definitely not the kindly cousins of the cute and benevolent aliens of “E.T.” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. These aliens are ruthless and merciless warmongers literally out for blood. Unlike the book, we are not told where these aliens come from but it is inferred that they have been here before to bury their killing tripods in the ground to stay dormant until activated. The aliens invade without rhyme and reason that the humans can comprehend . When they are not vaporizing the terrified humans around them, they are picking them up from ground level like little morsels of food. They pick on the humans only to harvest their blood that they spray back to the ground for no apparent reason. The audience are not shown what the aliens really look like outside of their killing machines until 87 minutes into the movie and they look as gruesome and alien as we can imagine. Thankfully we don’t get a subtitled transcript of their conversations since the audience is better left in the dark as for their motivation.
The star of this movie has to be Steven Spielberg himself for masterfully creating a thrilling and suspenseful escape sequences as the main characters find themselves fleeing from the murderous aliens. In the post September 11th world, Spielberg taps into the shared experience to show the impact of the devastations. From the moment Ray sees the 100 feet killing machines near his own back yard, the audience is engaged in a pulse pounding road trip punctuated by scenes of the family trying to keep it together between the lulls of the chase. The challenge of this movie is to show how catastrophic an alien invasion might be and Spielberg delivers the goods in spades. The physical devastations and the high body count escalates as the movie progresses. Two of the most memorable scenes of the alien destructions for me was the aftermath of the plane crash and the burning runaway train roaring in front of the refugees as they waited for it to pass so they can continue their journey. Viewers familiar with his body of work would also recognize some call backs to his earlier movies like “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park”.
Although Spielberg continue to shy away from the dark side of his imagination like he did in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, “War of the Worlds” is an easy movie to recommend to people to put on their must watch list. Exciting escape sequence amidst apocalyptical events coupled with the story of how a father tries to hold his family together makes for worthy viewing.
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