Tuesday, September 23, 2008

War of the Worlds thoughts

Twice today I found myself referring to Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds, once in 8th grade English, because its 9/11 imagery connected to a book we're reading, and once in film class. I want to explain farther what I don't like about the flick.

I have a complicated reaction to director Steven Spielberg in any case. Of his recent films, I very much liked Munich; of his early films, Jaws continues to impress me. I despise Saving Private Ryan, partly for its Spielbergian excesses--which I'll get into another time--but largely because the story is awful, with each character meeting some obviously ironic end (the point being?), and the Germans portrayed as non-humans. 

I looked forward to War of the Worlds. It's a great story, and I like the 1953 film quite a bit, which gave us truly iconic images of terrifying Martian ships as well as a marvelous sound for the ships' death ray. One of Spielberg's strength is in choreographing complex action scenes (this is why George Lucas brought him in to help with the final fight between Anakin and Obi Wan; with too many vectors of action in play, Lucas, who has trouble with more than two people in a shot at once, was out of his depth). He seemed well-suited to the project. Then I read the reviews and stayed away.

I watched the film on DVD this summer. I had tried to watch it sooner, but about fifteen minutes in, was so fed up with the sloppiness (no electronics work, but, for the sake of a shot, we see a hand-held video camera film its owner getting blasted; Tom Cruise runs faster than the ships; a few blocks away, no one has noticed what is essentially the end of the world), I could watch no more. At the urging of a friend (who isn't a big fan of the film, but liked a few things he wanted me to see), I returned to the movie.

As I said, the sloppiness bothered me, but that isn't an issue later. Tom Cruise is terrible. When he puts on his false positivity to cheer up his kids, it's overplayed into a combination of silliness and the youtube-available video of Cruise, with fearful jolliness, evangelizing for Scientology (he's welcome to his beliefs, but it's a very odd performance on behalf of them). His whole attempt at a working-class character fails to come off.

The plot has little structure to it. They flee and flee and flee--and then we spend an awful lot of time with the hunkered-down Tim Robbins, during which we see the aliens at length, get a prolonged hide-and-seek scene, and learn, unhelpfully, that the aliens are turning human blood into goo that they spray around. Why? We never learn. And if we're supposed to see some growth in Cruise's character, I missed it. He acts to protect his child. I get that. He manages, to his own surprise, to blow up a tripod. Beyond that, I don't feel anything has happened. Unlike the earlier movie, in which the main character is actively working to defeat the Martians, we're given here a protagonist who just wants to survive, and who wants his family to survive. If it's a parable for our time, it has little say except that people will behave desperately to protect their own. But if that's the ethic of the picture, then the humans really are little more than cattle with attitude. If you really wanted to bring this story down to earth and make it more startlingly realistic, you'd have to deal with the trauma the daughter experiences. Also, you'd actually kill off the son, who, for no good reason, not only survives but gets to the proper destination. 

Wells's original novel ends with a deus ex machina, the germs that kill the Martians part of the divine plan of protection (Wells surely means this ironically, since he's not religious). This sudden ending is still in place, but the timing is even more abrupt, and paired with the miraculous survival of the son, the plot seems even more absurd.

I also find the camera-circling-the-vehicle shot (we'll watch it in class) more distracting than involving; it draws attention to itself rather than the action.

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