H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) was originally written on the eve of the twentieth century, an era that was marked by the end of the British Empire and the growing power of the German war machine, and its paranoia is thinly veiled. It is no coincidence that in times of uncertain threats that the Wells classic is brought down from the bookshelf and dusted off.
Such was the case in 1938, when the Mercury Theatre updated the book and reformatted it as a radio broadcast, disguised as an actual news event, scaring the bejeezus out of what we now see as an easily manipulated listening audience. This latest incarnation, brought to us by the super team of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, is facing a lot more resistance than the 1938 or even the 1953 movie version.
Today, movie viewers have already seen the earth invaded a couple of times in the last decade, so how can this film distinguish itself from the Independence Days or the Mars Attacks, the films that take themselves really seriously or those that mock the whole idea?
War of the Worlds (2005) does take itself seriously, serious about special effects, that is. The alien crafts and the destruction they wreak are very serious. This film is definitely not for children, despite Spielberg’s return to E.T.’s. The otherworldly “tripods” are incredible, deadly and beautiful at the same time, if not reminiscent of the AT-AT’s from The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Unfortunately, the story undermines the serious mood for which the film is striving.
The familial drama that is played against the backdrop of the “extermination” of the human race is a little tired; divorced parent tries to make good by saving his kids from danger (or dressing in drag, either way, it’s the same story). Tom Cruise does his best, we really shouldn’t blame him for being a huge star, but he is just being Tom Cruise. Dakota Fanning is the focal point in this picture when it comes to the human element. Watching her huge eyes register fear forces us to empathize, a trick that Spielberg seems to have nailed, as we have all seen in Jurassic Park (1993).
But really, the film is not so concerned with the humans, except to show them reacting to the alien invasion, and by reacting I mean to say dying. And are there a number of ways they die. At first the humans are easily vaporized, but then later we see them being harvested, I guess.
But this leads to more questions, such as why turn them to dust if their blood is such a valuable source of nutrients? Questions just keep mounting until you reach the end, and then the biggest question of them all hits you. Needless to say, this version of War of the Worlds leaves one wondering not only about the plot holes, but why things that were changed from other versions only serve to make this one more confusing and unsatisfying.
Not to give this one away, but somehow Cruise pulls it all together, as we knew he would. The film would probably have been better served by casting an actor that we don’t take for granted as surviving whatever you throw at him. He does do a fine job at running, though, so maybe that’s all the script was really calling for. The aliens are imaginative, with the requisite enormous heads, but dull-sensed, as they don’t even notice the humans a couple of feet away. What is the use of a huge brain if your olfactory lobes are still the size of a baby’s thumbnail?
In short, and that is not a crack at Cruise, the movie is a good summertime eye-candy festival. If mass destruction is your thing, by all means, rush right out and see it. It is beautifully filmed, very suspenseful (it is from the guy who brought you Jaws thirty years ago), and a roller-coaster if there ever was one. Though War of the Worlds is trying to offer itself as historically relevant, only some sort of machine can show us if this version will stand the test of time.