Review: Spielberg's War of the Worlds

I went to see War of the Worlds yesterday full of lowered expectations primed by a variety of negative reviews I had already seen around the Internet. Luckily lowering my expectations led to an enjoyable experience at the theater.

I have read the novel by H. G. Wells, and I have seen the original movie from the 50's, both of which have their own tone. I never heard the famous radio drama, however, so I have missed out on some of the history of this story. While most people should be familiar with the premise, I'll try not to ruin the ending anyway.

The story is based on the idea that distant aliens have watched Earth from afar and plotted its demise from long ago. This particular telling of the invasion is more faithful to the book than the old movie, even keeping the three legged tripods from the novel. (I suspect Wells, like the later L. Neil Smith, want aliens that were, well, alien, not exhibiting the same bilateral symmetry of most species on Earth.)

The movie is quite creepy and horrifying, as the novel and the radio show were intended to be. When our gaggle of friends was discussing the movie afterward, Independence Day was brought up. Of course, the ending of that movie was intensely unsatisfying to me. This movie handled the ending far better, although some aspects were weak. I get the feeling that Spielberg hates endings, as I have been unhappy with the last act of many of his movies. However, the opening and ending narrations (by Morgan Freeman) directly quoting the novel were excellent bookends to the story in between.

As corny as Tom Cruise has been in public, he made a solid performance in this movie. He was a solid realistic anchor. In fact, most of the special effects in this movie were no so much spectacular as realistic. It is the realism of the entire thing that makes it so creepy. It's as though this could happen, if you can suspend reality enough around the items that are far-fetched.

After all, burying death machines on a planet such as ours before the dawn of recorded history is a very long-term plan. However, I can buy that. Crossing space with people is a lot more tricky affair than sending hardware. Ship the hardware first and the people afterward. One could even wonder if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was really the delivery of underground death machines all over the planet. Robert Ebert had difficulty with this point, I can let it pass.

Spielberg had to modernize certain aspects of the novel to make it pass for modern day. We can accept that. There is very little in the modern world that is common with the world of 1898. At least Spielberg does not set those two worlds at war as well. In doing so, Spielberg also had to change the story to make it more emotionally compelling. The characters so added did not take anything away from the novel's undercurrent. Survive! Do what is necessary! Wonder at your luck!

There is less of the sense of wonder in this movie as there was in, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T., as these aliens are most definitely a threat. But you can feel it when people want to know what's going on, or they crowd around a hole in the street where lightning struck tens of times. Random quotes from the crowd also underscore the “we have no idea what is going on” aspect. Spielberg is trying to tell a human story with an alien backdrop. The point is the relationship between a father and his two children, not the invasion from another planet. That sets this movie apart from the B-movies of the 50's or Independence Day.

As I said at the beginning, I ended up liking the movie and I expected not to. I don't know if will work as well as a DVD in the hyper-distracted household. You have to sit there and experience it. A lot of movies lose their impact in the home. links:

Josh Poulson

Posted Saturday, Jul 2 2005 07:43 AM

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