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July 12, 2005

War of the Worlds: Scary As Hell

One of the reasons that I walk some streets at night is because I have some street smarts. The reason cops are relatively fearless is because they train. All this is to say that some dangers are manageable, precisely because of experience and training. When you know what's coming, you can deal. When you have no idea what's coming or even what's possible, you freak. Steven Spielberg has freaked me out.

What separates War of the Worlds from just about every other science fiction film in memory is that there is no science. This film is told from the point of view of a blue collar deadbeat dad who has no clue what is going on. There is no news report voiceover, there is no embattled scientist trying to prove his theory was correct, there is no government conspiracy revealed, no succession of battle plans discussed and implemented. There is just a dad, his kids, and trying to figure out how the hell to survive in a world without answers.

When things start going boom in this film, everybody's first question is 'Is it terrorists?'. This is kind of cute and funny, and I did have that in mind as I wrote cartoons and essays today and yesterday. It has become tedious to hear what terrorists are doing these days. Terrorists are as lethal as lightning and just about as predictable. But the first thing Speilberg does is invert the predictability of lightning storms, that's a very neat trick. When the first machine stirs underground, the asphalt is not hot, but cold.

This is a film that, if you are ready to roll with it, gives very little insight as to the nature of the threat. You want to ask what, how and why, but then the person next to you is vaporized. The film gives no time for analysis, there are simply moments of shock and awe and the adrenaline rush of deadly necessity. My nickel says that everyone who hates this movie does so because it is so short on explanation. Well, there is also Tom Cruise who is about as emotionally simpathetic as Martin Short is heroic. Was the film miscast? Yeah.. if you ask me, it should have been Bruce Willis, or better yet Willam Dafoe, but I'm not here to try to prove I know casting better than Speilberg. Rather I am particularly impressed as I was with 'Saving Private Ryan' that he has once again changed the nature of the genre by giving his film an extraordinary chaos that changes the nature of the narrative. In War of the Worlds, less science makes for more terror. This is his new verisimilitude; no way to Google a context.

The film is full of clever and not-so-clever devices; an actual reporter shows the news face to face that she ordinarily would have broadcast from her van, if only there were a station to pick up the signal. Cool. How tired are the news voice-overs? Tom Cruise drives his minivan through the compacted debris field of a plane wreck. Uncool, I'm sorry but that was just fake. Unless one of the alien machines snatched the plane out of the air and dropped it vertically, it would have been a great deal more scattered. A train on fire runs through a crossing at 60 miles per hour. Devastatingly cool. That was pure genius. A field of blood greets Cruise as he searches for his daughter. Uh. Yuck, and well, that's a hell of a lot of blood.

There are some very cool battlefield scenes, the sound editing and direction of this film is superb. The alien machines are as frightening as promised. I have a feeling that he spent a lot of time engineering them to be psychologically fearsome.

I did spend some time thinking of ways to get around the enemy attacks during the film. The machines seemed to be fairly coherent in their actions, as if they were operated by a single mind. They didn't appear to coordinate their attacks. I couldn't be certain, but there appeared to be several different types of machine - they seemed to vary in size and power. They clearly only attacked frontally and seemed to pick their targets at random. Those that consumed humans appeared to move a bit slower and be single threaded in their actions, and they clearly worked with a terroristic intent giving their victims and witnesses plenty of time to be scared. Of course any and all of these characteristics might have been done for the effect of the narrative rather than to accurately depict the capabilities of such alien weapons.

The emotional centerpiece of this film was awkward and unbalanced. I was already somewhat prepared for it and its failure left me wanting. This is, of course, the basement scene where the aliens try to find a safe place for their kids to hang out, having unsuccessfully rid it of humans who thought it was safe for themselves. In fact, it turned out so badly that I'm not sure if it's reasonable to say the film had an emotional centerpiece. It's Cruise's fault of course. His emotional distance from his kids is supposed to be central to the film, and yet he never quite seems to bridge that gap. I can't tell if Speilberg wanted it that way or if Cruise is so horrible an actor that I can't even believe he understands children. Given what Dakota Fanning did in 'Man on Fire' with Denzel Washington, I tend to believe that Cruise is deeply flawed as an actor here. I'm sure I have plenty of good company on that score.

None of that changes the ways and means War of the Worlds does actually work. Speilberg seems to have captured the emotions of crowds perfectly, what other directors do with CGI armies on battlefields Speilberg has done with hundreds of extras, and he's nailed it. One of these days he's going to make a film about refugees that is going to destroy us emotionally. Given Schindler's List, it's just a matter of time. Despite its flaws, War of the Worlds, is a truly chilling horror flick and a real departure from your standard sci-fi.

Posted by mbowen at July 12, 2005 09:04 PM

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Agreed. Great movie (and great perspective, Cobb). The only thing that bothered me to the point of distraction was the way people reacted when the weird stuff first started up. When the ground began to rumble, peoples just moved back a few feet. Me, I'd've been loooooong gone. Like, OUT. I might take a look again from a couple blocks away, minimum.

Posted by: memer [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 13, 2005 08:16 AM