War of the Worlds (2-Disc Special Edition) Review
Right, let’s get the Cruise-bashing out of the way first: that Tom, he’s gone a bit mad, hasn’t he? There, that’s done, now we can get on with the film.
Actually, there’s a certain level of parallel between War of the Worlds’ lead actor and his latest movie. Both are hyperactive, prone to sudden unexpected bursts of energy, both are in-your-face, yelling at the top of their voices with no attempt at subtly, while onlookers around them hold their collective breath, wondering what’s going to come next. But whereas Mr Cruise has done himself no favours in the PR department this year with his outbursts his film is all the more better for it, and is quite the best thing its director has done for a long time.
It’s this reviewer’s opinion that Steven Spielberg hasn’t made a great Spielberg film since Jurassic Park (not wishing to get into a lengthy argument about this, anyone who immediately says Schindler’s List are advised to check out Mark’s review here which broadly reflects my own opinions on that movie). But this, if not quite as good as his very best, is a long-awaited return to form. After slumbering through such lightweight fare as Catch Me If You Can and the technical exercise that was The Terminal this is the director doing what he does best, giving his two biggest directorial obsessions of the family and outer space an angsty millennial twist and turning them into one glorious chase movie. With the aid of some of the most absorbing CGI effects yet seen he has unleashed a pure adrenaline rush of a movie, combining heart-stopping sequences with artistic flourishes thrown in so casually after a while it’s easy to begin to take them for granted. It is an action movie tour de force.
One of the joys of Wells’ novel is that it is timeless, and can be transposed into any setting at any time and still work as the allegory it was originally intended to be. Here the story is updated by screenwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman to modern-day New Jersey, where we find dock worker Ray (Cruise) living in a crappy house with a crappy life. Divorced, he sees his children Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) only once every few weeks, with the resultant breakdown of relationship with them: Robbie thinks his Dad is a loser, while Ray finds it hard to communicate with his daughter, making their visits to him awkward and embarrassing. Lucky for him then that there’s an alien spacecraft lurking right under his street, waiting to headbutt its way out of the ground and begin slaughtering everyone: only by saving his children from mortal danger will he be able to get across to them how much he loves them.
The familial story, therefore, is not particularly thrilling and, despite the many interviews in the disk’s Bonus Features about how important the personal story is to them all, you won’t be left on the edge of your seat wondering if Ray will be reconciled with his estranged offspring. There’s not much time to be anyway: the first Tripod begins to rear its eerily-well-designed head within ten minutes of the film starting, and proceedings then develop at such a pace that any personal moments have to be conveyed in brief filmic shorthand. Even when Ray and Rachel finally find what appears to be a safe house in Tim Robbins’ basement, there’s only a few minutes spent on Ray bonding with his daughter: there’s too much exterior stress to be bothered with that story. What the specific focus on these archetypal characters does do, however, is ensure we get a very individual view of the earth-shattering events: unlike most other films of this ilk where we get the bigger picture of what's going on, here it is restricted to the experiences of these three, the crucial difference and what makes the film such a success. This is alien invasion as we would experience it.
And what an invasion it is. The initial appearance of the Tripod in the streets gives an indication of what we are in for, and is perhaps the most thrilling moment of the entire film. As the ground cracks, buildings start to crumble, the earth shakes and then, finally, the thing rears its head out of the dust and falling masonry, we believe it’s there, we believe it’s standing there and, as soon as it begins firing off its Heat-Ray and turning people instantly into dust, we believe it’s going to kick our ass. Like Ray, who is quicker than most to recognise the danger and scarper, we end up not caring about the screaming multitudes around him, we just want to get away as quickly as possible. The people who get hit by the Heat-Ray are unlucky, but there's not a lot we can do: it's every man for himself, and we are, through Ray, that Everyman. This feels real.
This "hyper-reality" (as the makers would have it) is down to two things. First of all the CGI is stunning – and stunningly used. Nowadays it’s (usually) no longer possible to spot where the joins are between reality and graphic, but one is usually required to suspend disbelief anyway. Not so here. The Tripods are integrated so well into the film, and designed so convincingly, that it easy to become completely lost in what is happening and believe that thing is right there. These things, and the places they attack, have a tangibility not often felt in movies like this. Both close-up and at a distance they work: one of the most eerie moments of the entire movie is at the ferry when Ray looks back and sees the giant behemoths on the hill above. It’s a beautiful image in a film of beautiful images, and a perfect encapsulation of what it would be like if you were there. Crucially, Spielberg doesn’t concentrate on the effects: the most impressive moments visually often happen in the background, with the camera firmly focused on our heroes and their response. In this way, the effect is in actuality heightened; making the CGI part of the background world blends it in as though it’s not as important as what the characters are doing. If we were in their position, we wouldn't be stopping to gawp in awe at the destruction around us, we'd be doing what they are and running for our lives.
The other thing that makes it tangible is the style in which Spielberg chose to shoot the film. He gives the film a washed out look, similar to that seen in such films as Traffic and Three Kings, and, just as in those movies, it gives the sense we are not watching a Hollywood production at all but rather news footage (which also underlines the fact a lot of the most explosive action is happening in a blur in the background). At first it jars: any light almost overwhelms the image, and often skin and sky seem to blend into one, but this dour palate ultimately works extremely well. When we see Ray and his car driving away while the bridge behind them is destroyed, the fact it doesn’t happen in bright technicolour helps reinforce the reality: it’s as though the event is being downplayed by the camera as much as possible, the event itself so extraordinary it doesn’t need any extra flash. Faces are pale and wan as though with no make-up (poor old Miranda Otto as Ray’s wife does particularly badly in this regard) while the grainy look brings to mind some of the at-the-front filming from recent war zones. This washed out look makes it the visual antithesis of the 1953 George Pal film: that was fantasy, this is really happening.
Although the screenplay is, ultimately, a lot of big set pieces glued together with some clichéd character moments, one of the main joys for a fan of Wells’ original book is how close the script sticks to its source. Compare the description of the Tripods and the destruction they rein down on the villages in the first few chapters of the book, and then watch the film: while the location and entrance of the machines differs, in every other way it is almost exactly the same. Wells’ descriptions of the fleeing multitudes is also brought to screen faithfully, including a modernised version of the scene in the book where the narrator’s brother’s horse-and-cart is hijacked by the baying mob. The aliens harvesting of human blood, too, is brought to life, in one of the few subtle touches to the film in the red webbing discovered outside the farm house: not only a symbol of how the aliens are making the world their own, but also of the grand guignol we see hints of, the harvesting of the humans, as though the web is the spat out gristle of victims. In many ways then, this film is far closer to the book than the ’53 version, and is something to be grateful for: if Wells had written the book today, it’s easy to think he would have imagined it looking a lot like this. (The ’53 movie gets nods too, most obviously in the cameos of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and the appearance of the probing alien cobra camera, although in this case not with a multi-coloured lens. The last scene of the Martians dying from that version is replicated here too, although not with nearly as much power or, indeed conviction: it’s one of the few scenes in the film that feels half-hearted, as though there was an obligation to do it without there being conviction it really worked.)
It’s also highly reminiscent of past Spielberg pictures, and this is the reason it’s not quite in the same league as some of his earlier works. As well as the fact it once again revolves around the family unit (estranged: this is post-2000 Steven after all), there might be one or two moments that seem rather familiar. Put bluntly, the director nicks some of his past set pieces and reworks them here. The most obvious are the Tripods and aliens themselves, who in behaviour are nothing more than T-Rexes and raptors respectively. From the moment the first Tripod appears, complete with staring eye and stamping leg, through to the loud roar of triumph they bellow throughout, through to the fact the essential climax of the film, with the two aliens hunting the basement where Ray and co are hiding, is the kitchen setpiece from JP1, there’s little doubt Spielberg’s inspiration in crafting them was more Crichton than Wells. It’s a curious decision to make as it’s so blatant, and if one was being pedantic a real flaw of the film: on their own the Tripods are great (and nothing should be taken away from their basic design as they are perfect) but given the context of Bergian history they are carbon copies of those earlier beasts, with ultimately far less personality. Although the most blatant, there are numerous other familiar moments, such as the flashing lights in the basement and Rachel’s subsequent grabbing bring to mind the boy’s abduction scene in Close Encounters.
But, as mentioned above, to counteract these repetitions, there are plenty of new flourishes to compensate, with the film particularly strong in implying the bigger picture of the invasion without showing it. As mentioned above, one of the intentions of Koepp's approach to the story was to stick to the idea this was one man’s experience of the invasion, and as such we don’t get any direct indication of events elsewhere: we don’t see or hear any news reports or go anywhere Ray and co don’t visit. But we still get an idea things are going to hell everywhere: the downed plane, the floating clothes on the river, the burning train, all memorable moments. Spielberg also continues to enjoy playing with his camera, an exercise that started for him perhaps in Minority Report and was most obvious in The Terminal. Although that was utter drivel as a movie in its own right, its free-flowing camera work emerges here and is far more effective with an actual story to back it up, with shots such as the camera swooping around Ray’s car as he races away from his annihilated home town or when he gives us a flying tour of the Tripods near the end as the camera hunts for the captured family.
All that praise aside, the film does have one major problem, and that's a weak final third. From the moment Ray and Rachel encounter nutter Harlan Ogilvy (played by Tim Robbins) in the farmhouse basement the film slows down, to its detriment. By far the least successful section of the movie, it is intended to provide a breather while the character arc between Ray and his daughter reaches its conclusion, as well as providing a more immediate climax than just running away from another group of Tripods, but just limps along obvious lines with little in the way of surprise. Apparently aware of this, as well as the fact the sign-posted emotional resolution takes a long time to get to, the odd factor of Robbins’ character’s fate is thrown in, which is quite the silliest moment of the film, a bludgeoning on the audience of the central message - no matter what the cost, you will protect your family - which is both obvious and, to be blunt, rather self-evident to anyone who’s ever had any family ever, ie everyone. And, yes, as already mentioned, the stalking of the characters by the Martians is directly from Jurassic Park and, yes, the look of the Martians themselves is deeply disappointing – in profile they look a lot like the Alien, while when they step into the light they just look like a generic beastie conjured up from a Make-Your-Alien CGI kit. That said, it is an atmospheric sequence, with the sounds of what turns out to be one of the final battles overhead adding a suitable air of grim finality to it all. The squalid dankness of the place, and Robbins’ wide-eyed lunatic, conclude and summarise the mounting feeling of despair that has been building throughout the movie: at first Ray is able to escape the Martian onslaught fairly easily before it begins to become progressively harder and harder until now, it seems, they are small rabbits trapped down a hole while the fox prowls outside, ready to make its inevitable kill the moment they stick their noses out (which, in effect, is what happens). But overall, it's an odd sequence that might have been more suitable in the middle of the movie rather than the end. This, together with the cage sequence that follows (which is the one moment it becomes like any other sci-fi film), makes for an unsatisfactory final third – a shame, considering it follows one of the most dramatic moments, when we hear the battle on the other side of the hill but can only see the flashing lights.
One thing the basement sequence does underline is that, despite the fact the film largely depends on whiz-bang mayhem, it would be wrong to consider that the actors here are unimportant, especially as they are our representatives in what's going on. Despite the fact there’s one too many shot of him looking up at the sky in wonder/alarm/horror, Cruise does a decent if ultimately bland job as leading man. It’s always difficult to see quite how he became such a big star, but as the script calls for his role to be that of an Everyman, the fact he doesn’t do anything that suggests a personality (aside from in the farmhouse) is justified. Dakota Fanning as daughter Rachel, who is the Moppet du jour, gets to scream a lot and manages to imbue her role with a lot more personality than the girl on the page – she’s far better than some other kids Spielberg has worked with down the years, although not really in the same class as Eliot or Short Round (yes, he was annoying, but he was good in his role). Same goes for Chatwin as Robbie. The best, though, ironically is Tim Robbins, who lets his inner psycho out piece by piece, impressive considering the limited amount of time he’s on the screen. He acts Cruise off the screen when they’re together, and it’s a bit of a shame it wasn’t he who came out of that wooden door – that would have amused me (and me alone, I suspect) at least.
But then it’s not about the actors it’s about the action, and on that score Spielberg has finally woken up and given us another corker. Downplaying the obvious real-world parallels, this is a thrilling return to form. Although it could be argued the accelerated production schedule harmed the last third of the script, it certainly gives the movie as a whole a pacey energy which, together with some of the most visceral effects ILM have yet produced and another of dependable John Williams' epic scores, make this a film that is a worthy continuation of Wells' novel. Admittedly it doesn't work as well on the small screen - what does? - but that shouldn't detract from a fine piece of work. A war well worth waging.
This review covers the Special Edition release of the movie: it is also available on a one-disk version. The film itself is found on the first disk and all the extras on the second. Both disks open with the Paramount DVD logo, a language select screen and then a very brief montage of clips from the film leading to the main menu which is a static image overlaid by the film’s score. On the Film disk, the four options are: Play, Audio Options, Subtitles, and Scene Selection, and selecting one leads to another brief clip of the film before arriving at your chosen destination.
The Extras disk opens with a choice to either go to the extras menu or select appropriate subtitles first: all extras come with these. Surprisingly, all these documentaries are filmed in full screen – why? Presentation is largely the same as with the first but there is no Play All function which is always an annoyance - in this case it would have been particularly useful for the four Production Diaries.
One disappointment is the cover: the rental version's is far better...
Now here’s a problem. Because of the way the film’s shot, the image here is very grainy, with lots of light flares at the beginning. However, this is how it’s meant to look, meaning although the image looks rubbish for a newly-released DVD, it’s intentionally that way, and is therefore paradoxically a very good transfer, with no signs of digital artefacting or other associated problems. Just like it was in the cinema in fact.
Boom! There goes the bridge! Blast! There’s the Heat-Ray striking down. Roar! There are the Tripods… erm, roaring in the distance. This disk comes with both 5.1 and DTS tracks, and of course the DTS is the option to go for. Thrusting you into the centre of the action, watch out when the Tripods begin their march or you might find yourselves staring up a la Tom and wondering when the roof is going to be ripped off, while the sequence in the basement will have you nervously looking out of the window just to make sure the battle isn’t really happening on your front lawn. Or maybe not. Either way all the stops are pulled out making for a deeply satisfying experience.
Revisiting the Invasion (7:39)
An introductory piece, in which Spielberg, Cruise, Koepp and Executive Producer Paula Wagner talk about the human drama at the centre of the film and why they made it as they did. Reasonable, but feels like the first part of a longer documentary.
The HG Wells Legacy (6:35)
Wells’ grandson and great-grandson discuss his literary life and work up until the publication of War of the Worlds, and briefly touch on the ’53 version. Nice to see the relatives involved, but hardly detailed: if only this could have been combined with the documentary on the ’53 film’s disk we would have had an excellent profile of the author.
Steven Spielberg and the Original War of the Worlds(8:00)
The title to this featurette is a bit of a misnomer as the director only contributes to the first couple of minutes. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson recollect the making of their version, while crew members of the 2005 version reflect on what that first film meant to them. Good.
Characters: The Family Unit (13:21)
This is one of those wonderful documentaries where a group of amazingly talented actors, all gorgeous, talk about how much fun it was to work with such a group of amazingly talented actors who are all gorgeous. Which is wonderful.
Spielberg talks about how he used complex computerised animatics to storyboard the film, and we meet some of the team involved in the process. Includes plenty of examples and a Previs-final version comparison.
A comprehensive account of the film’s production. Following cast and crew from Day One right through to the final wrap, we see the entire movie being shot in a diary-like format which, together with extensive contributions from everyone involved explaining what’s going on, gives a complete picture of the shoot. Broken into four sections: East Coast: Beginning (22:30), East Coast: Exile (19:39), West Coast: Destruction (27:29) and West Coast: War (22:20) the scale of the project, together with the rapid schedule, comes across clearly, which makes this feature-length piece virtually as good as a commentary on the film itself. A very enjoyable, if occasionally exhausting, watch.
Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens (14:07)
Typical look at the ideas behind the design of the invaders, with all the usual suspects of initial sketches, computer modelling, and so on. Still think the alien look is a disappointment.
Scoring War of the Worlds (11:57)
When he began composing it, John Williams told Spielberg that his score would be unlike any he’d written before. Not sure if that’s the case, but this is still an interesting featurette in which he discusses the various musical cues and the thinking behind them. This was partially filmed by Spielberg on a little camcorder, and at one point the great director allows us an exciting shot up Williams’ nose.
”We Are Not Alone” (3:14)
This is obviously meant to be the closing remarks of the documentaries on this disk, but as a featurette on its own doesn’t work: if only there was a Play All button it would make perfect sense! As it is, this involves Cruise saying he likes Spielberg and Spielberg explaining how it was his Dad who inspired in him a wonder and love of outer space, before some closing credits. An odd way of going about things.
The film itself is great, and a relief to those of us who considered Spielberg didn't have another big action movie in him (suddenly Indy 4 doesn't seem such a bad idea). The extras are comprehensive too, especially the Production Diaries. There isn't a moment of discontent or criticism, but that's to be expected, and you couldn't ask for a more detailed look at the making of the film - although the absence of any trailers is a curious omission. A good package all round - aside from the cover, that is.
Last updated: 06/05/2018 16:37:54