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|Spielberg misses a golden
opportunity with War
War of the Worlds (2005)
Director: Steven Spielberg
By JIM CAROLUS
STATIC and FEEDBACK staff writer
The current “rap” on Steven Spielberg is that his last
several films lack the energy and sense of bold
imagination that have characterized his best work. I
agree with this assessment only in part. While I found
Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal overly
lightweight, forgettable exercises in forced whimsy, I
admired Minority Report as the closest we have come
to “vintage Spielberg” in quite some time. That film
also, oddly, re-framed my appreciation of A.I. (a film I
still consider deeply flawed), allowing me to overlook
my many problems with its pacing and visual choices.
It was an ambitious film, and they can’t all be classics.
Perhaps the single element of A.I. that most bothered
critics and audiences was its sentimental ending.
Nearly every critic hypothesized that the movie should
have ended much sooner than it did. But Spielberg’s
decision to end the film with the artificial boy reuniting
with his mother never bothered me, because it played
fair by the scientific rules the movie had established.
The reunion was as “artificial” as the boy himself, and
was thus not nearly as cheesy as inattentive viewers
made it out to be.
Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for the ending of War of the Worlds, a film so compelling for so much
of its duration that you eventually want to strangle Spielberg for insulting our intelligence the way he does during
the last third of this movie. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
First, there is some good news: the early ads for the film were wise in keeping the alien menace largely unseen.
When they finally emerge to attack society (or, as the screenwriters probably saw it, Tom Cruise), the effect is
astounding. Huge attacks occur in bright daylight, and the 9/11 parallels are absolutely sobering. I never thought
I’d say this, but this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ century-old novel contains some of the most intense and realistic
scenes of mass chaos I’ve seen. The effects are very subtle, but highly effective, rendering the destruction that
takes place somehow more personal. When a bridge gets knocked over onto an entire neighborhood, it isn’t the
Golden Gate but rather an anonymous span in New Jersey. The effect is chilling, and in these fearful times, I had
a lump in my throat throughout much of this film — its nightmare scenario is VERY effectively realized.
I was also once again impressed with Tom Cruise’s performance…to a point. During the first half of the film he
is more than adequate in the role of the somewhat dislikable Ray Ferrier. Once the action starts (less than
fifteen minutes into the movie), we already feel comfortable enough with him to make the sudden escalation in
tension palpable. His scenes with Dakota Fanning (who out-acts Cruise the entire time) crackle with a very real
sense of fear and danger. Seriously, Fanning is a terrific actress in this, perhaps even surpassing Drew
Barrymore in E.T. She has a very bright future ahead.
Several excellent scenes also function as a potent examination of how easily humans can crack under pressure,
most especially a draining sequence in which hundreds of desperate humans attempt to claw their way into
Cruise’s van. Disturbing moments such as these, viewed in light of international threats both past and present,
emanate with a shuddering plausibility.
But as the film nears its conclusion, we get the sneaking suspicion that Spielberg has been having a go with us.
After terrifying us with images of disintegrated airplanes, crumbling churches and, most brilliantly, a moving
passenger train engulfed with flames, Spielberg suddenly indulges in the sort of cuteness that is fine in a
touching family film like E.T. but grossly out of place in such a grim picture as this. In fact, perhaps for the first
time, I found something pretentious in Spielberg’s obsession with gentle whimsy.
Spielberg? The “Big Mac and Fries” of blockbuster entertainment? Pretentious? Oh, you better believe it. If you
feel comfortable watching Tom Cruise sing “Little Deuce Coup” to his daughter (as if the only reason the aliens
invaded was so Cruise could play “microwave” father) you’re a stronger person than I. I wanted to throw up.
That sequence is easily the worst scene in the movie, but I’d also have eliminated Tim Robbins’ character
altogether (big surprise, the “lullaby” takes place during his scene). I had high expectations for Robbins here, but
his character is underdeveloped and unsympathetic, and he really doesn’t have enough screen time to become
a compelling character.
The location of this interlude is Robbins’ basement, a location selected merely so that Spielberg could film yet
another darkly lit “search” scene in which characters must hide from a predator using only their wiles.
Remember the “raptors in the kitchen” from Jurassic Park? How about the spiders from Minority Report? This
scene is nearly identical to the Jurassic Park scene, only instead of vivid and detailed dinosaurs, Spielberg gives
us a generic-looking “probe” that also happens to be completely incapable of performing its job. Then, to further
blast the audience’s confidence in the movie, Spielberg trots out a few silly looking aliens as if saying, “fooled
you, it really is only a movie.”
From this point on, the film becomes less and less convincing, heaping on the “good news” and “superhuman
feats” despite the fact that a healthy portion of the world’s population has been either vaporized or devoured. But
if Tom Cruise can save his daughter, doesn’t that make everything all better?
I realize I sound like a cynic, but this is not the kind of subject matter to play fast and loose with. It has some
tough scenes that made me uncomfortable. These difficult moments did not bother me, though, they impressed
me. What didn’t impress me was Spielberg’s apparent lack of confidence that his audience could handle a
more intense conclusion, as far as the main characters are concerned (not necessarily depressing, but at least
The question begs to be asked: Could Spielberg have successfully transitioned the worldwide tragedy seen in
the film’s first hour into a more personal family tragedy during its second hour (while still capturing an overriding
sense of hope for humanity in the ending)? I’m not sure. But I do know one thing. He could have tried — and he
War of the Worlds could have been the first, great, post-9/11 commentary. Instead, it’s a disappointing illustration
of how even Spielberg can have difficulty getting his arms around America’s uncertain future.