Sunday, July 03, 2005

Review - War of the Worlds

For Steven Spielberg, an adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds must have seemed like a project perfectly suited to his talents. Spielberg’s mastery of special effects makes him the ideal choice to helm a film about a devastating alien attack on planet earth, and the screenplay provided by Josh Friedman and David Koepp also gives plenty of room to the kind of parental issues Spielberg loves to include. This is the third time Spielberg has made a film about visitors from another world but War of the Worlds is a far cry from the territory explored in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. These aliens are far less benevolent than those depicted in the earlier films, unfortunately they’re a damn sight less interesting too.

Spielberg’s latest focuses on Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a blue-collar dock worker in New York. Ray is selfish, arrogant, irresponsible and is a perfect fit for an actor whose best performances, from Rain Man to Magnolia, have seen him play arrogant, self-centred characters who come to re-evaluate their life over the course of the film. Ray is a divorced father of two and at the start of the film his wife (Miranda Otto) is dropping off the kids for the weekend (“take care of our kids” she tells him, more in hope than expectation). The kids aren’t too enamoured at the thought of a weekend at dad’s either; teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) makes no attempt to disguise his hostility towards his father while young Rachel (the creepily gifted 11 year-old Dakota Fanning) simply tries to make the best of a bad situation.

Fortunately for Ray, there’s no need to dream up some entertainment for the weekend because a bizarre electrical storm suddenly appears on the horizon, and everyone is fascinated by the enormous clouds and lightning flashes - until those lightning strikes get a little too close for comfort. Soon, the local families are all cowering inside while lightning hits the areas around their houses and knocks out all the cars, phones and electrical equipment. When Ray and the other residents go to investigate the damage, they find a crater in the middle of the town through which a giant robotic tripod creature emerges and starts to destroy the surroundings. Ray runs for home while people around him get vaporised and he manages to get his children into the only working car in the city before escaping.

The rest of War of the Worlds follows this trio’s attempts to survive while the full scale of the alien invasion is slowly revealed. Spielberg has a knack for swiftly sketching out a character in a few scenes and the early sequences of Ray attempting to bond with his family are witty and enjoyable. When the tripod does make its appearance and the family hit the road, Spielberg gives us a terrifying and spectacular series of explosions and near-misses which feature a number of heart-stopping moments. These early scenes also skilfully depict the growing panic which engulfs the city and the stunning effects brilliantly render the havoc wreaked by the invaders. Unfortunately, nothing else in the film can follow this opening third.

Simply put, Spielberg simply seems to run out of steam, or ideas, as the film progresses and the second half feels twice as long as the first. War of the Worlds grinds to a halt when Cruise and Fanning hide out in the basement of a gun-toting loony played by Tim Robbins, in a sequence which feels vaguely pointless and goes on far too long. After this, Spielberg trades the unifying sense of terror which characterised the early scenes for sequences where Cruise single-handedly performs a number of heroic acts - most ludicrously, his bravery when faced with an alien’s giant sphincter muscle - and these moments all seem to have strayed in from a much less sophisticated blockbuster.

There are a myriad of other problems afflicting War of the Worlds. The script is littered with plot-holes, lapses in logic (how come the initial attack didn‘t knock out one man‘s camcorder?), and the focus on the central trio alone means the carnage elsewhere lacks any sort of emotional resonance. Spielberg, normally so sound in dealing with emotional moments, bungles the big father/son scene when Robbie’s sudden desire to join the army is shoehorned into the plot, and his liberal use of Holocaust imagery and 9/11 references is crass and unnecessary. Of course, Spielberg is still a master of so many aspects of filmmaking and War of the Worlds contains a number of superb moments - aside from that opening sequence there is also a fine set-piece on a ferry and a wonderful shot of a burning train - but the overall film feels hacked together and flat.

Much of that is down to the climax, or anti-climax as it turns out to be. Spielberg’s inability to finish a film satisfactorily has plagued his work for years, as the damaging conclusions of Schindler’s List, AI and Minority Report will attest. Here the problem is a denouement which feels rushed rather than overlong, as the alien attack inexplicably falls apart in a couple of minutes, and I had no idea why until Morgan Freeman’s tacked-on voiceover helpfully explained matters. Even worse are the following scenes which once again see Spielberg trying to force some sort of happy ending onto the film in the most unsuitable of circumstances.

Spielberg very rarely makes a truly bad film, but War of the Worlds is distinctly average at best. Cruise gives a reliably strong performance, as does Fanning, and the film occasionally stuns with a smart set-piece or some wonderful effects work, but it never really does enough. The thrill of the opening third is cancelled out by an hour of anti-climax and the rushed, unsatisfying conclusion leaves the feeling that the film has been a pointless exercise - little more than a $130million homily on responsible parenting - and I think we’re entitled to expect a little more than that.