On Tuesday evening, having watched 28 Days Later in the morning, I went to the cinema to watch War of the Worlds. The plot from the novel by H G Wells follows the story of one man whilst the world is invaded and the human race are enslaved by aliens. Steven Spielberg’s particular take on the tale moves from Victorian London to the modern-day US and has downbeat divorcee dock-worker Ray (Tom Cruise) looking after his children for the weekend when suddenly New York experiences some odd weather conditions.
We realise something is afoot when an alien tripod craft bursts out of the ground and starts vaporising people and buildings. Ray takes the only working car for miles around and heads off for Boston to return his children to their mother.
It’s going to be hard to review this without spoilers, but many people are already familiar with the story the book, other films and perhaps best of all, the Jeff Wayne album. However, if you don’t want to know anything about what happens beyond the above synopsis, turn away from your screen now…
War of the Worlds failed for me on a number of levels, so I shall start with the plus side. The effects were superb and the design – of the aliens and their craft – was absolutely first class. Even the aliens wandered about on three legs. And it is a powerful story; the original alien invasion story, whereby the Earth is attacked by something which it is beyond our means to defend ourselves against.
Okay, first of all, I struggled to sympathise with anyone. Ray came across as being a truly inadequate father – not just the bumbling yet conscientious American man in charge of children standard; he was aggressive and neglectful and when the shit started to go down he was unable to cope with his children’s distress. The best acting came from Dakota Fanning – a young actor who keeps popping up everywhere as a little girl in peril (her best part being in Man on Fire) – as Ray’s daughter, Rachel. However, Spielberg exploited her wide-eyed cuteness to the point of exhaustion, with every other shot being of her terrified face. Plus her character wasn’t entirely solid; her moments of extreme stoicism and childish hysteria were sandwiched a little too close together for my liking.
Ray also had an older son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) who was more effective as a parent-figure for Rachel, but promptly decided to leave his father and sister for reasons not entirely clear, but it meant that he and Ray could have an emotional father-son man-to-man, “Let me grow up, Dad.” – “No son, I can’t let you go.” – “But Dad you have to!” – “Yeah, all right I guess, you’re a man now and I respect your decision to run towards the aliens which are incinerating everything in their path.” (this wasn’t the actual dialogue, but it was close).
Robbie did get engulfed in the fireball – a proper impressive fireball – but he still managed to make it to Boston for the final scene with no explanation, not even “Well, just as all those military vehicles I was surrounded by exploded, I happened to fall down a deep hole, at the bottom of which was a pile of pillows, a collection of fire-retardant blankets and a ladder. So I wasn’t hurt in the fall, the blankets protected me from the initial fireball and then I was able to use a ladder to get out.” Nothing.
Meanwhile, Ray and Rachel find refuge with a former ambulance driver called Harlan Oglivy (Tim Robbins). A character called Oglivy exists in the book – he is an astronomer and the one that says, “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.” (or words to that effect). He is supposed to be a little crazy, but in the film he was just plain creepy. You didn’t know why – he seemed to ramble a lot and say very contradictory things. You really didn’t know what the guy was after and most especially you have no idea why Ray decides to kill him, having blindfolded Rachel and left her singing a lullaby from Mary Poppins.
How this got a 12A certificate I really don’t know. No nudity and no swearing? It was two hours of pretty much unrelenting death and destruction. When people weren’t being vaporised they were having the blood sucked out of them or being burnt, crushed or drowned. However, unlike in the horror film I saw earlier that day here there was no let up and thus very little suspense. Like a painting with no balance of light and shade. After the first half hour of being assaulted by all this, on top of the fact that I couldn’t feel invested in any of the characters, I just felt numb and a little bored.
However, the fact that this was The War of The Worlds carried us along to the end. The end of story is that the aliens die because their systems can’t cope with commonplace bacteria. This is by nature a bit of an anti-climax, but could have been dramatic enough. Instead it seemed like a cop-out; like they'd run out of time and energy and wanted to tie up all the strings before bedtime.
I have only listed about half the faults this movie had but you’re probably bored already. I sound like I really hated it and I didn’t. I suppose I am so critical of it because (a) I paid good money to go see it, (b) it’s Steven Spielberg, (c) it’s a jolly good story; it ought to have been good. But overall, it was disappointing. Definitely a “missed opportunity” if not actually a “pile of pants.”