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Category Archives: A Study in Spielberg

A Study in Spielberg: 1941 (1979)

1941

A more appropriate name would be “Steven’s Folly.”

I suppose that every great director has to have at least one movie that tests the patience of the audience.  For Spielberg, that was a comedy misfire known simply as 1941.  Perched uncomfortably in his filmography between Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was a bizarre free-for-all that started at level 10 and never never dropped for a moment.  This was a noisy, relentless, overbearing bit of comedy tripe so obnoxious that Spielberg would later claim that audience members at the first test screening were holding their hands over their ears.

Set amid the paranoia of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the focuses a group of misfits in Southern California, 1941 doesn’t really have a plot structure so much as a gaggle of insane characters let loose on each other to do apparently whatever they like within the span of 90 minutes.  The problem, I discovered, is that none of the comedy sticks.  It’s just a series of nutty people allowed to say and do whatever they please in a sort of war-time version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  The comic invention is to gather together all sorts of wonderful actors, both serious and comic, and let them run around like idiots and make a lot of noise.  This, a comedy does not make.

Comedy has to have rules, it has to have structure, it has to have set up and payoff.  Even the Marx Brothers’ brand on insanity was written and rewritten, rehearsed and re-rehearsed.  It was perfected down to the last detail so it seemed to come from their guts.  That’s not the case here.

The movie has a cult status that I don’t understand.  I sat stone-faced through this whole production.  Not just stone-faced, but also frustrated as I watch a bilious amounts of comic invention burn on the screen.  It is one of those movies where you sense that it might have been funny in the moment, on the set, or in the screenwriting sessions.  But when you’re sitting there watching joke after joke fall over and die, you are left with the inevitable question, “what’s the point of all this?”

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Bridge of Spies (2015)

BridgeofSpies

Spielberg makes two kinds of pictures, his entertainments and his serious film.  Of the latter he works mostly in the realm of history, either by fact or by inspiration.  In his historical films I have tried to find a commonality and what I have come up with this that the common thread is negotiation.  In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler negotiates to get Jews onto his work list.  In Amistad, the 19th century lawyers negotiate around the law to get the Africans sent back home.  In Lincoln, The Great Emancipator negotiates his way around the political system to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed.  And in Bridge of Spies, his latest film, an insurance lawyer has to negotiate to keep a Russian spy from being executed.

Bridge of Spies offers me a creative challenge.  All of the other films in the series give me the advantage of hindsight, but this one does not.  How can I fairly assess the impact of a movie that only came out five months ago?  Of that, I can only describe my feelings revisiting the film just this afternoon.  It is a superior Cold War drama made up mostly of words and ideas.  It is simple in its overlaying concept, but the issues are far from simple-minded.

The movie opens with an image that I’m unable to get out of my mind.  We see a tiny, unremarkable man sitting alone, painting his own portrait. On his right is his canvas. On his left is the mirror. He works carefully, putting the finishing touches on a painting of what must be the saddest face you’ve ever seen. Over his shoulder we see these images, but we never see the man’s face except in the mirror. It’s an image that speaks to the duality of this man whose two faces will remain always in question.

His sad man is Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) soon to arrested for espionage against the United States for the Soviet Union. His chance for leniency does not exist. This is the 1960s, the Cold War is boiling, the geopolitical and ideological struggles of The U.S. and the Soviet Union are about to cut Germany in half  and American school kids are being instructed that they can prepare for nuclear war by hiding under the their desks and keeping a bathtub full of water at home.

Needless to say, Abel’s chances for a fair trial are slim to none, but in this American system of ours, everyone is entitled to a fair trial, right?  The unenviable task of representing Abel is given to a New York insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who doesn’t want the case – he hasn’t practiced criminal law in years. Yet, that’s not the point. The point is for Donovan to dutifully stand by Abel while the jury finds him guilty.

Quietly impressed by Abel’s calm demeanor, Donovan becomes determined to try the case and not simply stand by as a dummy fixture while Able is railroaded to prison. Failing to get by on the facts, such as an illegal search and seizure, Donovan sets out to keep his client from the death penalty. Abel is a Russian spy and sending this man to his death, Donovan reasons to an implacable Judge, might provoke an incident. Someday the U.S. may need Abel for a prisoner exchange.

Enter Francis Gary Powers, a Korean vet who is tasked with flying a U2 spy plane over Russia to take photographs. If you know the story of Powers and his run-in with the Russians then you kind of already know where this story is going. What is remarkable is that Spielberg, and his screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen take a story based on historical fact and balloon it up into a tense and very effective thriller that isn’t based on gunshots or tanks, but on ideas and quick-thinking. Donovan is a lawyer, a man whose job depends on being able to talk, deal and snooker his way around a difficult situation. What starts as a simple court case escalates into an international incident that takes him into the heart of East Germany to save his client and two American men held by the Soviets – along with Powers, Donovan has to negotiate the release of an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) who was arrested in East Germany for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bridge of Spies feels like an espionage thriller fit for John le Carré but filtered through the true-blue American sensibilities of Frank Capra. We’re in the midst of The Cold War, but we still feel that post-WW2 atmosphere of tried and true American Pride even as the global saber-rattling is making a nuclear exchange with the Russians inevitable. As he did with Schindler’s List, Spielberg keeps the tone of the film at ground level. He doesn’t pump up the action for effect, but simply lets his images and his actors create the moments. There is tension here but not out of manipulation.

What I love about this film is that despite it’s modern-day polish, it feels like a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood, when American films held the red, white and blue ideologies close to the chest. Most of this comes through a wonderful performance by Tom Hanks who gives us the kind of character that Jimmy Stewart use to play. Donovan is honest, but he’s also prone to think on his feet – he’s a lawyer. He sees Abel for what he is but he doesn’t dismiss him. There’s an admiration for this little man with a curious accent who seems unfazed by what is happening to him. Donovan is a good man who sets out to do the right thing, to bring home Powers and Pryor and use his legal know-how to do it.

The beauty of Bridge of Spies lies in Spielberg’s special ability to be able to put his hands around historical events and pull them close enough for us to see with more clarity. That resides not only in his screenplays but in his storytelling. Bridge of Spies is told with a simplistic clarity that is never simple minded. He keeps the energy of the story alive even to the conclusion which is inevitable given the history but is still fascinating given the filmmaking. After 40 years, Spielberg is still the best storyteller that we have.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Four years ago I chose Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as the best film of 2012, a decision that I have questioned ever since.  I’m not sure why.  I’m not sure why I put it at the top of my list, and I am not 100% sure why I’ve questioned it.  I thought maybe watching it again for ’A Study in Spielberg’ might reveal an answer.  Watching the film again yesterday I tried to figure out what element attracted me to this material in the first place.  With one exception, I have nothing really negative to say about the film, I like its structure, I like its intentions, I like its purpose.  So what am I questioning?

It goes without saying that the great central attraction of Lincoln is Daniel Day-Lewis.  He doesn’t make a movie every year; he hasn’t made a movie since Lincoln and in fact his page on the IMDb lists no film project that is forthcoming.  When he appears in a film he is nothing short of mesmerizing and, based on his body of work, he is apparently impossible to typecast.  To my knowledge he’s never given a bad performance and, in my opinion, Lincoln is his best work; he disappears inside the skin of the sixteenth President of the United States in a way that makes him seem, not like an American icon, but like an all-too-human man.

Lincoln is no flat portrait of a revered man, but the portrait of a man who is many different things to many people for many different reasons.  He is folksy, always ready with a story, which he uses to break tension.  He is a healer, whose words are effectual and elegant.  We see Lincoln as a shrewd politician who is not afraid to bend the rules.  The movie follows the last four months of his life, the time in which he balances a juggling act of monumental proportions. He is faced with ending the war, passing the thirteenth amendment and unconditionally pulling the union back together.  This is the most daunting task ever given to an American leader, but Lincoln with all his great strength and intelligence puts himself into the task like a general on the battlefield.

Those around Lincoln think he’s reckless and crazy, but he understands that he must place his country on its feet to be ready for the next generation.  To the future of his country, he sees what others do not, that asphyxiating the institution of slavery will not only bring the war to a close but will prepare his country for the next phase in its evolution.  He sees slavery as a basic and unnecessary evil that he must stamp out.  If he waits too long, it will never happen.  If he acts too quickly, he will lose the republic.

He understands suffering.  Under the surface Lincoln is a man who is quietly smoldering with grief.  He has seen his country through four years of devastating civil war that General Grant describes as “intimate and ugly.”  In his chest beats a heart that is heavy for his country but also for the loss in his own family.  Some years earlier, he and wife Mary Todd lost a son Willie to typhus.  While Mary withers under the stress and strain and guilt of what she could have done to save her son (and further has to put on a fake smile for public affairs), her husband stands as the pillar of strength.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt, but that he admits that he can’t let himself crumble under the weight of his guilt, he has a deeper issue to deal with.

Lincoln is a man in deep despair but that doesn’t alter his capacity for reason.  He is a deep thinker whose consideration allows us to understand not only how he thinks about an issue but how long he has been considering it.  The best of these takes place at a moment of quiet introspection while he is preparing to send an important cable to General Grant.  Lincoln sits in the telegraph office and quietly asks the young operator “Do you think that we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we are born to?”  He learns that the young officer is an engineering student and begins to consider the issue of racial equality in the terms of Euclid’s axioms and common notions.  In just a few beautifully chosen words, Abraham Lincoln pulls the 2000 year old method of mathematical reasoning into the issue of slavery, deeming that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”

This would be nothing without Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance.  He could easily have stood in the background and remained an omniscient and obscure figure, ruling on high, but he brings Abraham Lincoln down to a level that allows us to sense the man.   This is essential because Lincoln, for all of our reverence, is a man that we in 21st century American don’t really know.  Within the structural timeline of American History, his tenure on this earth ended half a generation before voices and images began to be captured by recording devices.  His voice is lost to history and that, in effect, cements his legend because not knowing how he sounded or how he moved leaves us to interpret Lincoln any way we want.  We idolize him because we cannot humanize his flaws with our senses.  Through Day-Lewis’ performance we get a sense of a humble and good man, a crafty and at times devious politician, and a wounded but devoted family man who perhaps worked longer and harder than any other single person in history during the moment of its greatest crisis to keep this country together.

I so I return to my initial question.  Writing on the subject, I find that it has only furthered my affection for Lincoln and for the film.  So, what makes me uncomfortable about having selected this as the best film of 2012?  Perhaps it is my own reaction to Lincoln himself.  This is a man that I have so loved and so revered since I learned about his life as a child, as all schoolchildren do, that it is probable to think that this affection may have given me a rose-colored view of the film itself.

Watching it again, I don’t think that’s the case.  This is a wonderful film, a great historical microscope of the most important moment of Lincoln’s career.  I could watch any moment of it again right now, the only exception being the ending.  It ends with Lincoln’s assassination (off-screen) and I don’t think it’s necessary.  There is a moment when Lincoln leaves for the theater and we see his back as he walks down the hall and disappears out of sight.  I think that might have been the perfect moments to end things; I already know in exhaustive detail about his death.  Pull back a little and I think that the movie would have ended on a perfect note.  Still, I can’t fault the whole film for just one misstep.  This is an important look into one of the most important chapter of American history, a moment when one man used all he had so that this nation would not perish from the Earth.

 

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

AdventuresofTinTin

Something odd happened just the other night.  I revisited both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Adventures of Tintin on the same evening.  For the latest Indiana Jones adventure, this is not good news because Tintin gives me everything that I wanted and missed in Crystal Skull.  This film was fun, it was a roller coaster ride, it had a great mystery, it had fun characters and it had a nicely organized story.  Whatever was churning inside Spielberg that compelled him to make Raiders of the Lost Ark is surely present here.  I didn’t find them in the other with Indy’s search for the skull.

For Raiders, Spielberg teamed up with George Lucas, but for Tintin, Spielberg to assistance from Peter Jackson and his company who bring this classic old character to life.  The Adventures of Tintin is based on the classic European comic by the Belgian artist Georges Remi who wrote under the pen name Hergé in a clean-line style that will be familiar to anyone who remembers Popeye or Betty Boop.  Tintin, I’m afraid, is a property that I am unfamiliar with, but I have to say that this animated movie is a wonderful introduction.  He’s really something else, this Tintin.  He’s a spirited lad, a kid newspaper reporter whose always on the beat, always after a great story, and always just around the corner from a noseful of trouble.  Along with his trusty dog Snowy, one thing snowballs into another and into another.

Along his travels he runs into a fun group of supporting players, not the least of which is a drunken sea salt named Captain Haddock (voiced by Andy Serkis) whose whiskey breath is enough to fuel a bi-plane that’s low on gas.  Also there’s a pair of bumbling Interpol inspectors Thompson and Thompson (voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) identical twins who can easily tell each other apart, but what are we to do?  And there’s the pointy-nosed villain Mr. Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig) who has a look that suggests that in a few years he may be visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve.

The story begins when Tintin buys a lovely model boat from a street vendor.  The rather humorless Sakherine (pronounced “Saccharine”) is keen on acquiring this particular boat and seems rather adamant that he have it.  What’s special about this boat?  Time will tell, and so will the adventure that propels from whatever this particular item is hiding.

The plot hardly matters.  Like the earlier Indiana Jones films, they’re a hook on which to hang a gaggle of fun action sequences that take us around the corner and around the world.  Tintin goes to exotic locations, meets up with over-the-top villains and kooky bystanders.  he gets to ride in helicopters, cars, airplanes, steamships, boats, trains, a motorcycle (which breaks apart during a chase to the point that he’s zip-lining down a clothesline using the front wheel).

Spielberg and company have taken the characters off the page and rendered them into the same 3D renderings that were responsible for Robert Zemekis’ The Polar Express.  The difference here is that the characters are suppose to be an approximation of animation whereas the characters in Zemekis’ film were suppose to be approximations of human beings.  This approach, I think works much better because the character are much further back from the Uncanny Valley.  With Polar Express, the human motions felt odd because we were watching something that was trying to mimic human motion.  With Tintin, we’re aware that we are seeing an upgrade in the style of the comic.

This also lends credibility to the actions, which are let loose from the limitations of the real world.  I was impressed by the life and energy that the movie gives to snowy, who act here as an honorary human being and seems to figure things out even before his human counterpart.  One of the great running jokes in the film is that he is set upon a clue but is having trouble conveying it to the clueless humans.

Oddly enough, I had more fun this time around.  I saw the film in a theater on Christmas Day back in 2011 and I remember that my reaction wasn’t all that exuberant.  I’m not sure what I was expecting.  I remember that I liked it but I wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels over it.  This time, for whatever reason, the movie really worked on me.  I found that I had a much better time.  I realized that the movie is a good starter for little boys too young for Indiana Jones.  It’s a much smarter and much funnier film than most animated features that just throw in puffy characters for the sake of selling toys at McDonald’s.  The great thing about Tintin is that it gives their imaginations a whole world to play in, and a fun, red-blooded adventure that gets started and doesn’t stop for anything.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

IndianaJonesandtheKingdomoftheCrystalSkull

Okay, let’s see if this got any better in eight years . . .

So here it is, in my travels through “A Study with Spielberg,” I have finally arrived at the most reviled movie that this great director ever made, the most hated sequel since The Phantom Menace.  In the past eight years  I have both defended this movie for what it is, and reviled it for what it ain’t – and I’ve had fun doing both.  But now I’ve come back around again to see which is actually the case.  Is it the barnacle that history has made it out to be, or is it a basically good movie that just got soured by a swirl of buzz?  Actually . . . it’s both.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a prime illustration of the destructive power of internet buzz.  Back in 2008 the movie received critical praise and critical gnashing both at the same time.  The public didn’t know what to think about it, until they started talking on the internet and everyone decided that this was one of the worst movies they’d ever seen.  Based on what I heard from film fans just after seeing the movie at the time (most of it being lightly positive), I have a feeling that its troubled reputation came less from the movie then from the commonality of negative air floating through cyberspace.  That doesn’t make the movie great, but I definitely think it made the movie worse in some people’s minds.  Is that fair?  No, but I took another look at the movie just to see for myself.

Sitting down to watch the movie again – I hadn’t seen it since 2008 – I watched it with fresh eyes.  I wanted to focus completely on the story, the characters, the goals, and the action without the hype getting in the way.  For the most part I think the movie does work.  It isn’t nearly as bad as its historic reputation, but I can’t call it anywhere near great.  It is deeply problematic and this time I think I understand why.

The whole movie is a downward slide.  It starts out brilliantly and then slides downhill, gets worse and then arrives at a wrong-headed conclusion that still has me shaking my head.

What did I like?  Well, the plot has something at stake that I think feels palatable – the commies want the crystal skull so it can twist our minds and bend the world to their will.  That’s a pretty nefarious goal, and one that is cause for concern.  I felt that this had more urgency than the Nazi’s  desire to find the Holy Grail.  I liked that the villains are Russians because, in the 1950s, who else would America have a problem with?  I liked Cate Blanchett as the ice-blooded Irina Spako, a Russian she-beast who stops at one point to suggest, just suggest, that she might rip out Indy’s heart.

Of course, I also liked Indy.  This is a character that I’ve grown up with.  Like James Bond, he’s a character that gets knocked around while dealing with the most powerful forces on Earth, but unlike Bond he seems far more vulnerable.  Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas obviously love this character and what Ford brings to the role this time is experience.  We sense a man, now in his 60s, who has seen it all and done it all but he’s not done with the unforgiving whirlwind of bruising circumstance.  In a lot of ways, his young counterpart Mutt Williams is a mirror reflection of himself, a kid of inexperience with a bad temper and a nose for trouble.  I’m not going to say that Shia LeBouf gives a good performance, but I approach his character with a kind of ‘take it or leave it’.  He’s . . . OK, I guess.

I feel, however, that there should be a bigger deal about the return of Marion.  Of all of Indy’s girlfriends, she was the one that everyone remembers, a gutsy broad who was probably tougher than he was (remember that when they reunited in Raiders, she greeted him with a clip to the jaw).  Here, I think she’s underused.  We’re happy to see her but she seems to exist on the sidelines.  She’s here to dispense some important familial information but that seems to be her only function.  If I’m being honest, I think that the reunion between Han and Leia in Force Awakens had more weight . . . and they had far fewer scenes together!

The action works.  Despite massive internet growling, I didn’t mind the opening scene.  The warehouse was a bit too much fan service, but I liked the idea of Indy running head first into Boom Town.  It was a nice signal that his adventure had landed head-first into the 1950s.  I liked the idea that he escaped a nuclear blast inside a lead-lined refrigerator.  It’s just as silly and improbable as escaping an airplane in a rubber raft or escaping from a tidal wave in a mine car.  It’s just the kind of think I expect from this series.

However . . .

The plot goes off the rails once it hits the jungle.  There’s an exciting chase once the skull has been found but the plot goes haywire as the movie reaches its destination.  When the story gets back to Peru, this is where the plot should get more exciting.  The three previous films all had great final acts but this one stinks of desperation, as if no one on the writing staff had a clear idea of how to end it.

I’ll say it, The ending is just stupid.  I mean, come on!  Aliens?  Inter-dimensional beings?  A flying saucer?  The spaces between the spaces?  That’s not part of the legacy of Indiana Jones.  It’s like we’ve been on a journey to find a mystical skull and then the movie throws us into a lousy science fiction movie.  With 19 years and so much time available to the script, I think someone could have come up with an idea better than this.  The series up until now has always had a smashing conclusion.  What happened here?

Basically this is a decent though problematic movie with an opening that I love, a midsection that I can’t complain about, a kid that was so-so, a female lead that was underused and an ending that I hated.  On balance I think this is a much better movie than it’s reputation would have you believe, but I’m still not able to get around its problems to spend another evening watching it again.  I guess that’s . . . a compliment?

 

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Munich (2005)

Munich

I felt sort of ashamed of myself after watching Munich.  Here is a thriller, a damned good one, a movie constructed with the greatest filmmaking skill that is built on events that shouldn’t be thrilling or exciting.  I’m challenged to think about what I’ve seen based on the real-life events depicted in the film.  But should I be thrilled?  That’s a challenge I’m trying to work out.

Munich opens with a scary recreation of the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich by Palestinian terrorists whose entry into the compound looks as easy as walking in your front door.  Spielberg and his faithful editor Michael Kahn then stage a dizzying montage of television coverage both to illustrate the confusion of the events and to illustrate the limitation of television at the moment.  He shows us the famous footage of the ski-masked terrorist leaning out the window, but then shows him from behind; from inside the room giving us a vantage point that television at the time could not.  We see shots inside the news control rooms and then the families of the hostages.  The scene ends with ABC announcer Jim McCay’s famous words “They’re all gone” that still give you chills.

But those events are only the beginning, the rest Munich is about the hunt for the men under those ski masks, not to bring them to justice, but to find and eliminate them.  Inside the walls of power in Israel, Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Collins) gives approval to a plan (penned “Operation: Wrath of God”) but reasons that “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” This is the world that Israel now lives in, a world in which they must show strength by hunting down these men and killing them.  It is a questionable ethic that hangs over the rest of the film.

The plan involves a group of five men led by one of Meir’s bodyguards, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) to travel all over Europe with a list of names of people that were supposedly involved and kill them.  The ethics of such a mission hang over everything that happens for the rest of the film.  Avner’s contact is a shady Frenchman who gives them names one at a time.  But who are these people?  Are they terrorists? Are they enemies of Israel?  Are they random targets?  Why are they not allowed to kill Ali Hassan Salameh, the architect of the massacre?

These are question that they are not allowed to ask.  Revenge is a dirty business and the men are asked to carry out these executions without question.  What is unsettling about the film is that every murder committed comes tagged with a question mark.  Who did they just kill?  Who ordered them killed?  What was the purpose of killing this person?

Munich is a brilliant rumination on the nature of revenge packaged in a thriller that could have come from the pen of John le Carré.  Spielberg stages action scenes with thrilling precision that make you sort of ashamed that you’re being entertained by them.  He wants you to stare into the face of revenge and question the motives behind Gold Meir and the Israeli government.  Is he criticizing their actions?  He says no, but based on the film I can’t see it any other way.

The movie ends with a shot of the World Trade Center and leaves us to wonder about our own actions in the wake of 9/11.  Think about how Meir’s statement: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”  Think about how they statement might have sounded to you on September 12th.  You may argue the point, but it’s something to think about.  What is the movie asking us?  When is revenge a good thing?  Are we seeking revenge?  Or are we simply protecting our interests.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: War of the Worlds (2005)

WaroftheWorlds

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.