Article By: Dan Clark
H.G. Wells’s crafted a Science Fiction gem when he created The War of the Worlds. It is a story that has been replicated in a number of different formations including radio, television, novel, and of course film. These iterations have gone on for generations making it a true icon in Science Fiction lore. In 2005 Stephen Spielberg took a chance by placing his spin on this classic tale. Spielberg, who has created a number of iconic Science Fiction stories in his own right, is not new to adapting the work of other notable legends. His track record with such project is mixed, but with a film like Minority Report he showed he was able to add his style without losing the essence of the source material. Much of that is also true with his adaptation of War of the Worlds. He took a novel that was written as the world was about to enter the 20th century and molded it to fit 21st century sensibilities. This transition is certainty nowhere near flawless, but there are enough chilling moments to make the fear of this story feel real again.
When Spielberg adapted Phillip K. Dick’s story he called on Tom Cruise to play the main role. Now as he enters into H.G. Wells’s territory he calls on him again. Unfortunately, Cruise just does not work in this role. He plays Ray Ferrier an average Joe who gets stuck with his kids for the weekend. There is no doubt Cruise oozes charm and has endless charisma—everything you need in a movie star. When he tries to play a normal everyday citizen he struggles. He never feels comfortable in his own skin as every action is over pronounced. It’s like watching an alien attempt to mimic our movements to fit in. During his weekend with the kids a freak lighting storm occurs knocking out all power in the neighborhood. The lighting stops, but the story is only beginning. Massive tripod robotic creatures emerge from underneath the ground causing utter havoc. People are decimated, buildings destroyed, and there is seemingly nothing our army can do to stop them. Ray must now help protect his two children from this annihilation, and hope they can survive until the war is over.
Though considering how annoying these characters can be, watching them succumb to this massive force would not be the worst thing ever. Most of that annoyance comes from the relationship of Ray and his son Robbie, played by Justin Chatwin. Their relationship was shaky before this invasion started, and the world ending hasn’t really changed matters. Nearly every time they are on screen together they are bickering about something. Seeing two people who can’t get along have to rely on one another to survive can be interesting, however their actions are so nonsensical what could have been interesting turned into complete drivel.
The spectacle of this destruction is something to behold. Spielberg makes these tripod creatures into a tremendous force of pure terror. Their low-pitched howl used to announce their presence will send shivers down your spine. Most of the main action scenes were shot at eye level causing them to tower over you as they demolished everything in their path. With movies like Duel and Jaws Spielberg was able to give a heavy dose of menace to characters that never spoke a word. That was the same here. Watching one of the tripods emerge from watery depths is a harrowing sight to witness. The imagery overall was rather striking. A fiery ghost like train, a bodied flooded river, and a reddish scorched Earth are just a few of the moments that stood out.
One way Spielberg updated this story for a new generation was by designing it to be a rather blatant allegory for the attacks on September 11th. Science Fiction tends to be better when it has a deep substance that goes beyond the events of the film. So it is commendable that Spielberg would try to infuse some political weight into his narrative. While his intentions may have been good, his execution left a lot to be desired. Many of his allegorical references were so hamfisted they lacked any form of emotional significance. Seeing wide-eyed Tom Cruise cover in dust the same way New Yorkers were when the Towers fell was completely out of place, especially when it is prefaced by a thrilling action scene. Spielberg yields these metaphors as a magic wand to cover up some holes in the film’s logic. There are some less blatant moments that are more effective. There is a sense of powerlessness that permeates much of the film. They are victims of this overwhelming horror, and they are unable to make those responsible fully repay for their actions. It tapped into the powerlessness that infiltrated much of country.
When it comes to a movie like War of the Worlds the main reason people go is for the entertainment factor, and there is plenty of that. From the moment the tripods first rise from the ground the chase is on. Spielberg only slows down to lull you into a false calm. Right when you think a moment of peace has arrived you are thrust headfirst into a scene of obliterating devastation. It is one heck of a thrill ride, even if that thrill ride thinks it is far more contextually eloquent than it really is.