War of the Worlds

| July 3, 2005

Two of our founding members saw and discussed the latest opus remake from Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise:
Del Harvey: So, you feel the same way?
Hank Yuloff: OK…I was having a conversation via email with my friends at Popcorn Chronicles. They gave it 5 out of 5…I questioned it, and got slammed. Something wrong about that. Yea…the flaws should be pointed out.
DH: What’d you say?
HY: That I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. That was probably because I knew the outcome. I would have bought it all more if the son had been killed. Having him pop up at the end was just too hokey for words…
DH: Especially when the aliens are shown and described as being so all-knowing and all-powerful.
HY: Yeah. And speaking of hokey, what about Cruise being the only one walking down the street outside his ex’s house in Boston…and having his ex’s family all being just fine right after we’re shown Boston in an aerial shot that showed almost total devastation.
DH: Yeah, that was just one of many flaws in this film, for me. There were some good scenes, and the special effects were very good, but there was something missing in the main character–like anything that would make me like him. I attribute that to Cruise’s shallowness as an actor. He’s good at playing a “dick,” but not much more than that.
HY: Like ‘Vanilla Sky’ and ‘Magnolia’?
DH: Yeah. Also, even though a few of the scenes were really good, when I consider them all together, it feels as though something was lacking. I think it’s the way Spielberg is making his films these days. I think it began with Schindler. He has some great scenes, but they still feel disjointed–sort of like you’re looking at two different films. A.I. felt that way.
HY: I tend to like Spielberg, but I knew the end to this one. But aren’t you down on Spielberg?
DH: I’m not a huge fan of his, but this new turn in his methodology leaves me cold.
HY: Well, there were some good performances in there.
DH: Yeah, Dakota Fanning is an incredible actress. And Tim Robbins just keeps getting more amazing every time.
HY: I hear ya. So, here’s my review…
I first heard the radio broadcast when I was about 10. It was on an album that my parents bought for me. At the time I had no real understanding why it caused so much terror. After all, it DID have commercials and the timetable was over a few days, not the hour it took to get through the Mercury Theater on the Air on October 30, 1938. The 10-year-old in me did not understand that pre-television, pre-special effects, pre-CGI kind of world my grandparents and parents lived in. And so it was that the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ 1898 book War of the Worlds directed by another Wells, this time Orson, would put many in the United States into a panic.
That was followed by a movie version in 1953 in which Los Angeles, not Grovers Mill, New Jersey was the first attack point of the Martians upon Earth. I have seen that movie a few times so by now, at 45, the story is quite familiar. I am assuming that you know how the story ends, too.
So is director Steven Spielberg because at the very beginning of the 2005 version of War of the Worlds, we are shown the microbes that will, in a few days, attack and kill off the men from Mars who would attack our planet to greedily take it for their own.
This new and latest version of the tale switches the primary attack point overseas but we never see that first encounter. We do see it in New Jersey. This time it is not through a scientist’s eyes that we see the story unfold, but a dock worker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his family (son Robbie, daughter Rachel) as they attempt to travel to Boston to reunite themselves with the kid’s mom and Ray’s ex-wife–because that is where the kids wanted to go.
So what makes this version worth a look? In 1938, the radio broadcast was done in such a way as to break into an evening of entertainment and slowly bring the listener into the story. In the first movie version, it is more forward, owing to the fact we now had visual to rely upon. In this new version, we have an updated computer generated story board that lets director Spielberg truly show the horror of an attack by an army that is superior in all ways. It is this first hour of the movie that is truly worth the effort and interest. But does it hold throughout? That’s where the Swiss Cheese factor (holes in the plot) comes in.
Seeing as this is an old tale many times re-told, I can not attack the plot, but I can point out to the potential viewers that there are many problems with story line that Spielberg has failed to answer. I will just share a few (PLOT REVELATIONS TO FOLLOW), and let you pick out the rest.
When the Martians first came to Earth in the radio and first film versions, they brought their killing machines with them. They then assembled them and were off to the races. The military is at full strength and able to fight the menace. In this version, we are witness to hundreds of electromagnetic pulses which, as they should according to them physicist fellers I talk to, destroy the power plants that send electricity to our cities (but evidently not ALL of them) and fry the electronics of vehicles, aircraft, and all little electronic gadgets in use. Cruise and his family are the “owners” of the only vehicle left operating because a mechanic changed the solenoid of the one car after the pulses. So amazingly, later in the movie, we see what must be hundreds of military vehicles and aircraft go into the attack. Damn, the military must be stocking up on COMPLETELY back up electronic equipment with the availability to change them out instantly in order to mount an attack on home soil.
In this version, the Martians arrive on ships that go into orbit around Earth and are then “beamed down” to their attack ships that are buried beneath the surface of the Earth. Most of them in populated areas. OK… How is it that these things have been on Earth so long that we have built cities upon them and not ONE of them was ever discovered during the building of a subway, or the digging of a foundation of a building, or in the search for prehistoric life on the planet? And more importantly (this one came to me a few days later): If they had the capability to dig these things down so deep in the first place, WHY WAIT? They were here before, evidently 1000s of years ago, prior to human knowledge, or at least the New York Times, so why didn’t they just take the planet then? It was a cool idea, but since it was never explained it makes the film far less easy to enjoy. There are many others, but I would rather you enjoy the movie than look for the Swiss cheese elements that detract from the story. A couple of other things just jump out:
Again, I am assuming you know the story of the War of the Worlds so you know that we win in the end because of the microbes in our skin. If they were here before, so were these microbes. Game over thousands of years ago. But lets assume the little buggers evolved in the last few years. At the end of the movie, Cruise and Fanning (we will get to brother Robbie in a moment) make it to Boston. The city is destroyed but yet the street that Cruise and his daughter need is perfectly in tact. Not a scorch mark. Not a tree down. And lo and behold, after one billion deaths (as voice over Morgan Freeman tells us) occurred, not one of Ferrier’s family dies. His ex-wife and her new husband are there along with her parents AND one more little surprise. Early in the Boston or Bust adventure the Ferrier family embarks upon, Robbie (Justin Chatwin from Taking Lives) feels the need to join those who are fighting the Martians. As Ray leaves him (and runs the other way) we see explosion after explosion from where Robbie was standing. So guess who is waiting for them in Boston? Yep, Robbie. And for dramatic effect, he has not changed cloths–they are still tattered from the trip. Evidently mom doesn’t care how he looks.
But Spielberg does.
This whole catastrophe seems to have made a new man out of Ferrier. Cruise goes from a bum who lives life his own way and damn the rules (see Top Gun) to someone his ex-wife can seemingly (from the approving nod she gives him at the end) love again. I guess absence (and Martians) make the heart grow fonder. Personally, I think Cruise was kind of stiff. You could have inserted Brad Pitt, Jude Law, or George Clooney and you would have been fine with star power. Or Will Smith–except he has already made his few Sci-fi pictures. Nothing about Cruise stood out.
So what DOES make it easy to watch this film? Really cool visuals. The Martian tripods and the Martians themselves and the destruction sequences are amazing. The sound is also terrific. The acting by Dakota Fanning (Rachel Ferrier) is even better. This is her 14th movie in 6 years (with three more in post production) and at 11 years old, Fanning (I Am Sam, Man on Fire) is every bit the acting prodigy. I hope she does not grow out of it. There is also a very cute homage to the original movie, Gene Barry (who played Dr. Clayton Forrester) and Ann Robinson (who played Sylvia Van Buren–and has revived the character twice more) both have non-speaking parts as Cruises’ ex-in laws.
War of the Worlds is a good popcorn film, but not the blockbuster, “need to see it again and again” kind of flick I was hoping for. The effects make it worth the trip to the theater unless you have a HUGE flat screen and killer sound system to back it up.

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