I'll be one of the first to admit that I'm a thrill ride junkie. The bigger, the faster and the more dangerous looking, the better, with the fun coming from being completely lost in the moment of chills, thrills and moments of terror. The same holds true for thrill ride type films where you completely forget where you are, who you're with and even the date as the movie takes you on a wild, edge of your seat journey.
The beauty of roller coasters and such is that when you look back on the experience, you not only appreciate the ride, but you can also see the physics behind your visceral response. As a movie fan first and then later in my second life as a film critic, I always hope that such film offerings will stand up to scrutiny.
Sure, you can get wrapped up in the proceedings as they unfold, but I want to be able to look back and see the expert construction and flawless execution of the curves, loops and ungodly plunges toward what seem like certain doom. Unfortunately, any such perfect examples are a rare breed, with various flaws often being discovered after the fact and others during the actual offering.
And one of the places both often occur is that movie amusement park known as Spielbergland. You know, that's the place where thrill rides such as "Jurassic Park" exist and the newest attraction for 2005 is the owner's remake of "War of the Worlds." Written in 1898 by H.G. Wells and turned into a notorious radio play by Orson Welles in 1938 that sent the listening public into a panicked frenzy when they thought the invasion was real, the film surprisingly has only been made into a movie just once (technically speaking).
That was by director Byron Haskin and producer/special effects guru George Pal in 1953 on a meager budget where Wells' original story was updated and modified for the times. And that means it was a cautionary tale during the era of the Red Scare, the Cold War and the increased sightings of something called UFOs that inexplicably started showing up during that decade.
Plenty of alien invasion films followed since then, some good, some bad, with two coming from this film's director, Steven Spielberg. They, of course, were "Close Encounters" and "E.T." which I guess makes this offering the completing piece of the filmmaker's alien trifecta.
Yet, as different as those two films were from each other, this one stands apart just as much. Rather than the goofy but jingoistic popcorn experience that was "Independence Day," Spielberg has delivered a smaller scale tale that mainly focuses on just a handful of characters, albeit in a big-budget flick filled with state of the art special effects.
In a story by Reuters' reporter Larry Fine, the filmmaker was quoted as saying "Science fiction for me is a vacation, a vacation away from all the rules of narrative logic, a vacation away from physics and physical science...It just let's you leave all the rules behind and just kind of fly." His version of Wells' story -- penned here by Josh Friedman (story for "Chain Reaction") and David Koepp ("Secret Window," "Spider-Man") -- certainly does fly as Spielberg delivers some incredibly tense moments and wild bits of you are there filmmaking.
Yet, the very sort of credibility problems that bedeviled the likes of "Jurassic Park" are also present in this offering. They, the borrowing from and/or similarities to other films and a really bad ending certainly don't derail the effort, but they clearly keep it from being any sort of sci-fi masterpiece.
If you're a nitpicker, the problems may drive you crazy and will be distracting enough to pull you out of the proceedings, at least to some degree. For me, I wanted to know why aliens went to the trouble of burying their tripod war machines long ago and only now have activated them. When the core group of characters gets to a house where the power is still on, why don't they turn on the TV or radio for some sort of news update? And when an airliner crashes into a house (with a resultant fireball that races through the basement and nearly incinerates our plucky little group, why doesn't the house burn to the ground?
I know, they're really not make it or break it elements, and they're all small things, but for me they add up and show a certain laziness or arrogance in storytelling where the filmmakers seem to think you won't notice them during the "ride" or, on the flip side, don't care if you do. I also had a problem with so many elements, special effects and other material feeling inspired by and/or recycled from other films.
Yes, some of them, including the probe into the farmhouse are lifted from the earlier work (but seems too much like a similar moment in "The Abyss) and others seem like some self-homage to the filmmaker's previous alien flicks. Even so, there are simply too many such elements that, like the nitpicky issues, will likely end up distracting some viewers from the proceedings, which is the last thing you want to do for this sort of film.
Then there's the all too obvious analogy to the events of and reactions to the tragedy of 9/11. From the main character covered in chalky white dust to the mass panic via directional fleeing and then the fences filled with posters of the missing, it's hard to miss the overt symbolism. I see where the filmmakers are going with the material -- in exploring the human psyche under such conditions -- but such material seemed like too much of a cheap and clearly unnecessary emotional ploy to me.
The bits where Spielberg's manipulation work best are the moments where he keeps certain events from the viewer's eye, thus making one's imagination come into play. It was a ploy he was forced into when shooting "Jaws" (an imagined shark is better than an obviously faked mechanical one any day), and yet I wished he had used it more here. Rather than showing us the enormous tripod war machines (presumably from Mars, in keeping in line with the book and first movie, but that's never verified here), he could have just shown us the destruction and the horror of what was occurring through the characters' eyes. That's something that occurred quite well in the similarly themed "Signs."
As was the case in that film, however, the filmmaker can't resist showing us the aliens, what with all of the money and work that went into creating them and all of the rest of the special effects. All of it looks great from a visual standpoint, but once the aliens enter the farmhouse here, the scene essentially boils down to an extraterrestrial version of the raptor sequence from "Jurassic Park."
And I did like that the filmmakers kept the bulk of the story -- like "Signs" -- on a small, personal scale (compared to the grandiose one in "Independence Day"). That keeps it grounded and much of the film is symbolically shot low from their view rather than in a big, all-encompassing special effects extravaganza shot.
While I understand that what we have here is essentially a run and hide flick, a big problem is that beyond that, there isn't much plot at play, and what's there isn't anything novel. The "deadbeat dad turns into heroic and caring father" story isn't anything new and it really isn't that effective here. Notwithstanding the public relations/marketing fiasco he's become for the film, Tom "You're Glib" Cruise ("Collateral," "The Last Samurai") is okay in the role as far as an action figure is concerned, but I had a harder time buying him as that reformed dad, and there are no surprises in that transformation.
The hysterical and screaming ten-year-old girl part is below the acting prowess of Dakota Fanning ("Hide and Seek," "Man on Fire"), although she's credible enough in the part, but Justin Chatwin ("Taking Lives," "SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2") is unremarkable as her teenage brother who wants to go off to war to battle the aliens (in another bit that reeks too much of post-911 material). Overall, the family dynamics, relationships and acting are below par from the same found in "Signs." Other performers of note include Tim Robbins ("Mystic River," "Antitrust") as a progressively unhinged survivor and Miranda Otto (the "Lord of the Rings" films, "Danny Deckchair") as the ex-wife, but this is really just a three character show.
Then there's the ending that has two major flaws, one inherited and one a chronic condition from which the director often suffers. I won't give away the details for those not familiar with how the original work concludes, but despite staying fairly truthful to Well's story, the solution is abrupt to say the least and feels like nothing short of a deus ex machina moment (literally and figuratively, at least in the case of bookend narrator Morgan Freeman's explanatory lines about said development).
Yet, that's nothing compared to the uplifting finale that simply undermines everything -- especially the dire, cautionary tone -- that preceded it. Viewers are apt to groan "You've got to be kidding me" upon witnessing the post-development development. While I understand the theme with which Spielberg is trying to leave the viewer, it just doesn't fit in with the rest of the movie. It's deus ex machina part deux that so abruptly changes the film that you'll wish you got up to get popcorn and missed all of it.
All of that said, there are enough good to effective things in the film to earn it a recommendation (but not for younger kids who might likely have nightmares for weeks after seeing it). If you can turn off your brain and just go along for the visceral ride -- arms flailing in the gushing wind and excited screams emanating from your very soul -- you might just enjoy this decidedly dark ride. I just wish, though, that the various problems had been addressed and corrected before the first shots of this "War of the Worlds" left the station.