War of the Worlds (2-Disc Limited Edition) Review
How easy is it for a star actor to step into the ordinary clothes, boots and stylings of the everyman. Some, like John Wayne, never even tried, knowing that he was not born for such trifling roles but for parts as legendary as the West itself. Harrison Ford, after years wearing the black waistcoat or the scuffed hat of Han Solo and Indiana Jones has struggled with the white collar of more ordinary folks. Tom Cruise, should, one would have thought, have found it easier - he's clearly a better actor than Ford, he can shed tears on screen and he's not what you might call lantern-jawed. Should be easy for him, no?
Well...he does his best in War Of The Worlds, in which he plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced father-of-two who now lives alone and works as a crane operator in the docks in New Jersey. Agreeing to look after his children, Robbie and Rachel (Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning), for a weekend, whilst his ex-wife and her partner, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and Tim (David Alan Basche) head to Boston, he finds that he barely knows them - his son is an uncommunicative, irresponsible teenager who mumbles about his dad being an asshole whilst his daughter is oversensitive and easily-bruised, both physically and emotionally. The kids aren't long in the house, though, when a storm knocks out the phone and power. Oddly, though, the lightning strikes twenty-six times in the same place and, leaving his kids at home, Ray goes to investigate.
When he arrives at the spot where the lightning struck, there's already a small group of curious folks huddling for a closer look. Unsurprisingly, the tarmac is smoking and has been vitrified but what happens next shocks everyone - the ground starts rotating around the crater left by the lightning and in less than a minute, a three-legged machine rises up and begins firing at those in the street, disintegrating them completely. Ray runs home, takes his kids and drives out of New Jersey heading for Boston, where Mary Ann will be. But as he leaves in one of the few working cars left in the city, he finds that the robots, and whatever is controlling them, are decimating the country with rumours of Europe, Asia and Africa all falling alongside the Americas. Nobody holds out much hope of surviving...
Clearly the era of films in which misery and various horrors are visited upon happy, well-to-do families and communities are over. Both the radio version and the 1953 film version of War Of The Worlds, featured this to some extent - in one, it was the light jazz of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra that soundtracked a balmy summer's evening, out of which came an alien attack, whereas, in the latter, a gentle southern Californian town, where they enjoyed a square dance of a Saturday night, was the setting for the arrival of one of the first alien pods. These settings work rather well as they accentuate the terrible events that occur, causing us to side with these communities and to see the alien invasion as being indiscriminate. After all, such nice, quiet towns and villages don't deserve the horrors that are wreaked upon them, with the inference being that if it can happen there, it, too, can happen to us.
Some time in the last decade or so, though, realism has nudged its way into films and we no longer have a traditional family or community as that which is under threat. Where once Spielberg was content to work within a traditional family structure, able to highlight Roy Neary's (Richard Dreyfuss) breakdown as he painstakingly builds the Devil's Mountain out of mashed potato whilst his family, including his crying son, looks on, not even able to understand him anymore never mind help him. Later, and this may have been a reflection of the breakdown of his parent's marriage, he had Dee Wallace bring up her kids alone in ET and, from that point on, single parents became as much a part of a Spielberg film as the sight of ET and Elliot flying across the moon within the Amblin logo.
On its own, this would be fine, if predictable, but equally modern neuroses have been wedded to this breakdown of family and society such that the cosy communities of the fifties have all but vanished from the screen, almost as if Margaret Thatcher's claim of, "There's no such thing as society" was only reflected in the movies. Here, for example, it doesn't appear to be enough that Ray Ferrier's family has broken down but that he's also living what one might flatteringly describe as a shit life - he appears to have few friends, his kids think he's an asshole and his wife seems to despair at the rut that he's found himself in. The look that she and her new boyfriend give Ray could only be described as pitying. Even those around him look to be living miserable, lonely, petty lives with even a mechanic friend of Ray's, Manny (Lenny Venito), refusing to let him take a customer's car despite the presence of an enormous alien tripod raining fire, death rays and destruction about them. Unfortunately, the effect of all of this is not to draw any sympathy with the human characters but to note that a flutter of joy passes through one's mind as the alien directs some accurate and well-timed death rays to take out the likes of Manny. One cheers as certain death is fired upon those running from the first alien, on those panicking at their failure to secure a place on a ferry and on an army battalion foolishly firing upon a shielded tripod. Where we ought to be saddened at the loss of life, so awful as these people before the arrival of the aliens that I couldn't help but feel as though the Martians, if indeed that's who they are, are actually here to perform some civic duty, almost out of a sense of care to the nations of the Earth to eliminate the more dreadfully miserable parts of the population. A more drastic measure, I admit, but one that is on a par with local councils planting trees and flowers in the more rundown estates under their care. In that respect, there's little to complain about as the aliens lay waste to vast tracts of land and the people who populate it, not even when they appear to turn Ray's godawful son to dust just when he is out of sight. We should care about these people but this viewer just couldn't, finding it much more entertaining to watch the aliens vapourise people in their thousands in such impressive ways as, for example, their tipping of a ferry into the water.
Indeed, it helps there is so much death and destruction to enjoy as it allows one to forget about the many, many holes in the plot that appear as soon as you turn your mind to them. Where you might think, for a second or two, that the idea of the alien tripods being buried in the Earth for hundreds, if not thousands, of years until the arrival of the creatures to control them is rather a clever idea, it raises such questions as why the aliens waited for as long as they did. Why, for example, did they hold off until man was sufficiently advanced to present something of a threat and why, in that time, did they never consider a sampling of the air and water to check for possible risks. Indeed, why, in the larger cities such as New York, London and Paris, where there are extensive subway and underground systems, were the tripods, which are huge things, able to lie undiscovered without at least one construction project stumbling over them. Given the manner in which the tripod in New Jersey rises to the surface, they don't look to be buried that deep. There are many, many more questions that could be asked but doing so would give away much in the last third or so of the film, notably how the typically Spielbergian happy ending is largely a con given what was suggested earlier in the film.
Equally typical of this being a Spielberg film is the presence of Dakota Fanning as Rachel Ferrier, through whose eyes we see much of what occurs in the film, particularly our first sighting of the actual aliens in the basement in which they hide out with Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Spielberg has used this before in A.I. and the Jurassic Park films, for example, and as much as I suspect he believes that it gives his film an innocent and endearing air, the precocious children that he employs are testing even to those of us who are parents. Equally testing is the realisation that for a master visual storyteller, or so his fans claim, Spielberg appears to have paid careful attention to Independence Day when designing his aliens. Like seeing an actor who makes but a few appearances in his life, this viewer struggled at first to say where I'd seen Spielberg's aliens before but come the moment of recognition, they bear such a similarity to those in the Roland Emmerich film that one might very well be a sequel to the other. Perhaps the circular motherships were called upon when the tripods failed to have the desired effect.
Finally, with this being the last complaint that I can make about the film, the sound design is unimpressive, particularly when comparing this to the 1953 version. Then, the aliens created chaos within a mono soundstage with an eerie humming and two weapons that sounded distinctly different. Here, the aliens have, well, a horn that although loud doesn't make much impact beyond its first use and one later in the film. What I did come away from this film with is an acceptance that, were I an alien set on dominating the Earth, I would pay just as much attention to the sound of my weapons of destruction as I would to the weapons themselves.
However, it does look impressive, with it being almost impossible to tell that the tripods exist only in model form and within a rendering computer. Their initial appearance in New Jersey, whilst good, pales against a later battle when three of them creep out of the night and stand on a hillside gazing down at the comparatively puny humans below. In the seconds before they begin firing, it's a remarkably beautiful and quietly threatening image that's quite the best thing in the film. But that one scene is not enough to rescue War Of The Worlds, rather that it stands out amongst very many ordinary scenes that although consistent with a dimly-lit, washed-out look that defines the film make this only a passable alien invasion film.
What's disappointing about this is that Spielberg has already made a classic alien invasion film, albeit one with friendly aliens rather than ones intent on destruction. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is almost the definitive film regarding the wonderment associated with alien sightings and the realisation that something miraculous, at least in modern times, was happening. War Of The Worlds could have been the equivalent to CE3K but with distinctly unfriendly visitors. It isn't, though; indeed, it's not even close, being unable to translate a global threat with its use of one man, an everyman even, to give the story a focus.
And so, again, how easy does is it for Cruise to step into the ordinary clothes, boots and stylings of the everyman? He tries, valiantly at times, but they're an ill fit and neither Cruise nor Spielberg cannot quite help himself, veering towards the heroic gesture on occasion. Early on, the crowds in the street make way for him to inspect the crater left by the lightning strikes, almost listening out for his thoughts on the matter. Much worse comes much later when Cruise, where others have failed, takes on an alien tripod with the clever use of a pair of grenades, which, given that the film presents no evidence to the contrary, appears to be the alien's first casualties. He's even there to helpfully point out to the army when the alien's shields have been lowered. For an everyman, he certainly leads an opportune life and is a world away from the Dreyfuss character in CE3K who, with his stumbling, chaotic search for reason, was the perfect bridge between the audience and the arrival of the aliens at Devil's Mountain. Cruise offers no such connection - his actions concerning Ogilvy distance him still further - and, as a result, the film lacks a connection with the audience. I'm not proud but I found myself rooting for the aliens when their and Cruise and Dakota's paths crossed in a way that I never did during Independence Day - alright, I did but only during the early displays of awesome firepower - which is surely not what Spielberg intended. That said, he doesn't end his film with a crop sprayer taking revenge for a rectal exam with the business end of an F-16 but War Of The Worlds, amongst many other films, might have been all the more enjoyable if he had.
War Of The Worlds has been treated to a superb transfer onto DVD with a wonderfully sharp picture that's alive with details in amongst the gloom. The muted colours of the film, chosen by Spielberg and not a fault in the transfer, don't make the film a natural choice for being an atypically great disc but it is, well able to handle the film without any particular faults.
The audio tracks - you get a choice between Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 Surround - are both excellent with the DTS track being only a slight improvement over the Dolby Digital one. There isn't much to distinguish them, though, with any appearance by the tripods being an outstanding moment if you should have a surround sound system - turn it up and enjoy!
There is, of course, no commentary - Spielberg does not record them for his films - but, otherwise, War Of The Worlds comes with a fine array of extras:
Revisiting The Invasion (7m40s): Beginning with footage of the 1953 version of War Of The Worlds, this has Steven Spielberg - hasn't he aged! - and Tom Cruise discussing their decision to make a new version of War Of The Worlds and how their focus was different than that of the 1953 movie.
The HG Wells Legacy (6m37s): Martin and Simon Wells, the grandson and great-grandson of HG Wells, are on hand to explain some history of the man and how pertinent is writing is, even today. There is, though, one less than pleasant scene in which they appear to have been squashed into one spot behind Spielberg's chair on the set of the director, smiling while the director cracks a joke or two about DNA. I suspect he's making a Jurassic Park reference, which, from Spielberg, couldn't possibly be any more dull.
Steven Spielberg And... (8m01s): ...The Original War Of The Worlds is now this feature is titled and, oddly, it opens with the ending of Spielberg's version of the film, showing how Gene Barry and Ann Robinson have been cast in his film. Both are featured in this extra, talking about the original film and how they came to be in the 2005 version. Spielberg and Dennis Muren are also featured, talking about their admiration for the 1953 film but also how their version differs.
Characters: The Family Unit (13m23s): Uh...they'll be divorced and have two kids...isn't that it in a Spielberg movie? Actually, this is just as concerned with the relationship between Cruise and Spielberg, which has evolved, apparently, as it is with the characters in the film. Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Mirando Otto also get some screen time but for all the insight they bring to the feature, you might just as well stare at the disc for thirteen minutes and twenty-three seconds.
Pre-Visualisation (7m44s): Where once we had storyboards as an extra, we now have footage of the director talking about their latest toy - animated, pre-visualisation that allows them to plan the entire film before shooting commences. I suspect that George Lucas will, one day, compress pre-visualisation and the actual production into being one and the same thing.
Production Diaries: There are four of these in total - two for the East Coast, Beginning (22m31s) and Exile (19m40s), and two for the West Coast, Destruction (27m29s) and War (22m31s) - all of which are dry, business-like affairs that intercut interviews with the cast and crew, pre-production work and behind-the-scenes footage from the actual shoot to make up a rather detailed, extensive making-of. In covering, over its four subsections, the entire film, they leave nothing uncovered and anyone with more than a passing interest in the production of the film will find much to enjoy here.
Designing The Enemy (14m08s): Subtitled Tripods And Aliens, this is much as you would expect - various production designers interviewed on their work on this film and how technology has allowed them to go back to HG Wells' original tripods rather than the flying machines of the 1953 film.
Scoring War Of The Worlds (11m58s): John Williams is interviewed here, talking about - what else? - his scoring of the film. That I'm pushed to remember even a moment or two from the score says much about the quality of his work on his film but he appears enthusiastic about it nonetheless.
We Are Not Alone (3m16s): Is the belief in aliens not contrary to the teachings of Scientology? Answers below...but not that this actually looks into anything quite as interesting as that, preferring, instead, to hop, skip and jump over the production of the film via short interviews and tiny, little clips from behind the scenes.
Production Notes: This is a printed article over seventy-eight pages that covers much of the same ground as the rest of the features on this disc but comparatively in a summarised form.
Galleries: There are four groups of images - Sketches By Costume Designer Joanna Johnston (9x), Production Stills (17x), Behind The Scenes (19x) and Production Sketches (30x) - that hint at the finished version of the film.
All of these are subtitled in English, Spanish and French.
Unfortunately for Spielberg, it's almost impossible not to compare this film to the 1953 version and, of the two, I much prefer the latter. What it understands and this doesn't is that the gentle anticipation of the violence of the aliens is often more exciting than being a witness to the actual horrors. What the 1953 film does very well is to take the time to set a peaceful, gentle place within the mind of the viewers, much as Hitchcock does in The Birds, which renders what follows more memorable. This version fails in that respect, leaving the film as never being anything more than some occasionally thrilling scenes joined by some, for the director, typically light froth.
Despite over fifty years passing between then and now, I would also argue that the 1953 film looks and sounds better, particularly comparing the flying alien crafts of one to the tripods of this. With an almost simultaneous release, I would direct you towards the latest version of that film, the Special Collectors Edition, rather than this but, sadly, I suspect that will mostly fall on deaf ears. Indeed, I'd sooner direct you to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind or Independence Day than this, both of which do the entire alien visitation/invasion thing much, much better than this and which are also available in smart DVD packages.