In 2003, when it was announced that Spielberg would remake the 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds, my heart kind of sank. I realized that this would be the third leg of his alien visitation trilogy but I was worried that he was taking it in the wrong direction. Previously, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. he had stood alone among American film directors in making films about aliens that had come to Earth with completely benign intentions. Murder and death, I thought, was the job of every other director. Spielberg is too good to tell a story in which an alien technology is hell-bent on wiping civilization off the map.
War of the Worlds is exactly what I expected. It’s a brilliant production with the visual effects and set designs that are second to none, but from Spielberg I suppose I expected something more. The story here is kind of one-dimensional, which is odd for Spielberg who usually specializes in making films that have two or three levels of storytelling. Here it’s all about the aliens; the humans can stuff it.
Apparently aliens have been hiding deep inside the Earth undetected for millions of years until lightning bolts send down . . . something . . . batteries maybe? . . . to wake them up. What comes out of the ground is right off the cover of H.G. Wells’ most famous novel and, I’ll admit, their kind of terrifying. In fact, this whole movie is terrifying. It has an appropriately nightmarish tone as the world is attacked by aliens who either turn human beings into ash or suck out their blood. They hunt and destroy human beings at will and pulverize everything in their path.
Our foreground interest resides with a human family run by Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a divorced dad who spends much of the running time running from alien laser beams with his teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and 10 year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Yet, oddly enough, they aren’t very interesting as characters. In any other special effects movie this wouldn’t bother me, but from Spielberg I always look for interesting human characters and here they seem oddly one-dimensional. There’s a brief attempt at depth in the fact that the kids don’t really know their father, but it’s a plot thread that is developed and quickly dropped.
The alien invasion serves its purpose. It’s terrifying, it’s horrific and it is occasionally pulse-pounding (I found it to be a lot more thrilling than Independence Day). Spielberg is the master of individual set pieces and here we get some doozies like a train on fire; a boat that gets overturned; a game of hide and seek inside a basement; and a tense scene inside the spaceship’s holding pen.
Yet, when it was all over I felt strangely empty. I had seen a great production but I felt that something was missing. This is an essentially joyless film, and when I saw it for the first time just after its initial release I remember I couldn’t take my mind off of 9/11. Spielberg made Close Encounters in the mid-70s and E.T. in the early 80s, but in the post-9/11 world would the messages of those two films have held up? Could the American film-going audience handle the story of peace and brotherhood after one of the worst tragedies in our history? Was a movie with this much heavy human tragedy appropriate just four years after that awful Tuesday morning? I know it seems insufficient to be asking these questions but at the time this weighed heavy on my mind.
I remember reading the book when I was a teenager and I remember that the narrative was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Instead of having characters in the middle of the action, we followed an unnamed survivor who stayed alive by wandering through the alien’s path of destruction. We saw the devastation mostly second-hand so that the impact of seeing the ships in the distance was more stunning. The absence of giving the character a name or a background put the reader in that person’s shoes. In some ways I had hoped that Spielberg would take a cue from this approach.
I think my problem is the alien invasion itself. It seems to have no purpose. They’ve come trillions of miles to suck out our blood and, I suppose, maybe terraform the Earth? What’s their beef with us? What did we do them? Why are they turning some humans to ash and others into food? Why are they watering the countryside with our blood? I guess on some level, our lack of knowledge about their plan makes the movie scarier, but I think it might have been scarier if we got the idea that they were smarter than we are.
I know I’m being too harsh. I’m told that I’m supposed to turn my brain off for a movie like this but with that I have a rather jolting reaction. NO! I say, no no no no no. I’m supposed to turn my brain off for everyone else’s science fiction movies. From Spielberg I have come to expect more. His sci-fi epics come packaged with heavy doses of intellect and second and third level challenges to the mind. I’m thinking of Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report. Even a misfire like A.I. had me asking question. When War of the Worlds is a breath-taking spectacle, but when it was over I felt that I wasn’t left with a whole lot to think about.