War of the Worlds

I know I was intending to write a review on Batman Begins, but I let that slide a little too late. Besides, I’ve been harping on about the various movie versions of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds for ages, so I thought I’d be remiss if I didn’ review its most recent film adaptation ASAP.

So, as many are already aware, the Steven Spielberg film War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise, is an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ seminal turn-of-the-twentieth novel about alien invasion; probably the first alien invasion story ever written. It opens on an introduction to Ray Ferrier (Cruise), a New York dockworker who has just been given his kids, the sullen teen Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious pre-teen Rachel (Dakota Fanning) by his divorced wife Maryann (Miranda Otto), for the weekend. It’s clear that the younger Ferriers don’t exactly get along with their dad, and that he’s not the world?s best father either.

Things start turning strange when an unnatural storm forms over Ray’s suburb, sending bolts of lightning repeatedly into the intersection in the middle of town. Ray goes to investigate, only to discover a huge alien machine rising up from under the road on three legs. The machine starts killing townsfolk indiscriminately, and Ray barely escapes with his life. He races back home, and begins a desperate journey to keep his family safe as alien tripods emerge across the globe and set about the extermination of the human race…

The War of the Worlds is one of those novels that has rarely, if ever, left print since it was first published, no mean feat for a fairly short book (when compared to modern novels) originally released in serial form in 1897. Several adaptations, most famously the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles? Mercury Theatre of the Air, have served to keep it in the public consciousness, and many science fiction plots owe their existence to the novel (including the nineties blockbuster Independence Day).

Spielberg’s production takes its cues from both the original novel and the nineteen-fifties film directed by George Pal; the latter’s influence can be seen in not-so-subtle visual nods, whilst the movie actually does a good job of conveying the book’s themes of the selfishness and desperation of human beings when confronted with a massive crisis. This is no SF actioner, it’s an SF war film, even an SF horror film, and the production thankfully never forgets it; the plot (penned by David Koepp) and pacing never let up the suspense and the pressure.

Some may object to the conversion of the novel’s philosopher narrator into a Spielberg blue-collar everyman in the mould of Close Encounters of the Third Kind?s Roy Neary (Hmm – Roy, Ray. Coincidence?), but I’d find it hard to imagine moviegoers accepting an ‘intelligent’ character being as shell-shocked as the book’s narrator was after his first encounter with the aliens’ monstrous machines. Cruise manages to convey that sense of shock and numbness perfectly when Ray returns home. Also, setting Ray up as being part of a broken family helps to build the pressure on all the characters further. Ray’s family also give him someone sympathetic (although some may argue) to bounce off for most of the film, as well as an easy-to-grasp reason to keep going, which the travelogue novel sometimes falters at. Finally, Ray’s actual job at the docks sets up a neat textural moment that returns when he and his family first go on the run.

It seems that after playing heroes and young turks for most of his career, Tom Cruise is finally hitting his acting stride as with wounded everyman roles. Like Minority Report before, he does a fantastic job at portraying a not-altogether-sympathetic, yet very understandable character. And let’s not slight his co-stars either, their performances made sure I felt every ounce of that outstanding pressure on their characters. Justin Chatwin nails his role – although he seems needlessly brash at the start, it establishes his later rage when he witnesses the results of the aliens’ inexorable advance. Then there’s Dakota Fanning, who does an outstanding job of playing both a both smart arse ten year old and a scared little girl in a war zone without looking like she’s acting. The depth of this child?s talent is astounding, and I hope she didn’t do herself any trauma in order to give that performance!

Now, having read the novel so many times I’ve lost count, I had a pretty clear idea on what the Martian Fighting Machines look like. The Alien Tripods aren’t quite it, and let’s face it, I doubt we’ll ever see an animated machine that incorporates every detail and attribute that Wells gave his creations. What the Industrial Lignt & Magic crew do manage to capture very well, though, is “the curious parallelism to animal motions” that Wells describes the Martian machines as having; the viewer is halfway convinced that these machines are themselves alive, despite their metal construction.

They’re also very effective as huge menacing monsters, and the ILM team has done a wonderful job of making them look as though They’re Really There at all times; I never once lost the urge to be where they weren’t. I’ll leave the actual presentation of the aliens themselves down to personal taste, but the film actually manages to crank their intentions up a notch or two (although I was so tied up in the novel’s idea I just refused to get it until after the film).

The bad news is that, although the ending not only stays fairly consistent with the novel and includes a nod to the ’53 film, it feels very much as though Spielberg decided to put the gloves back on. I couldn’t help feeling let down, especially given the relentless pressure that the film had poured on previously.

Do not let that stop you from going to see this film, though, especially if you don’t mind being scared. It pulls very few punches (and only the ones you’d expect Spielberg to pull), and if you didn’t before, it will make you realise why this century-old story is the one that all alien invasion stories owe tribute to.