War of the Worlds

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is mind-numbing and jaw-dropping, but not in a good way. It’s a two-hour chase through a maze of technical gee whiz and spoon-fed maudlin about the luckiest family on the face of the Earth, or at least what’s left after those nasty Tri-Pod driving, blood-sucking aliens get done with it.

Eagerly anticipated, War of the Worlds is a movie marvel, a showcase for physical and visual special effects which are impressive but never take on a life of their own. As vigorous as the set pieces are, it’s impossible not to trace them back to their original source. Spielberg crams as much death and destruction as possible into the widescreen frame, turning cities and valleys into fiery battlegrounds, but as the dust settles, War of the Worlds feels like an exercise in futility.

How else can you explain the cinematic convenience which follows cocky, exuberant dock worker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), who would rather build engines in his living room than play weekend father to his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and younger daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). As his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her new boyfriend head off to Boston for the weekend, Ray hopes to reconnect with his children.

There’s little time for a reunion as magnetic storms, bolts of lightning, and seismic activity signal the arrival of the Tri-Pods, towering killing machines which break free from the confines of their Earthly hibernation to vaporize everyone who gets in their way. Well, everyone but Ray and his family, who manage to outwit and outrun the predators at every turn. The script’s cinematic convenience is forgivable at first, but as the writers continue to pile on the coincidences and take dramatic time-outs, War of the Worlds spins out of its terrifying orbit.

How on Earth are we suppose to rally behind Ray as an everyday working man when he’s always at the right place at the right time? Even as Ray and his family find themselves in harm’s way, writers David Koepp and Josh Friedman manage to keep them insulated. There’s plenty of peril, but not once are we led to believe that Ray won’t persevere.

Electro-magnetic pulses disable electricity and fry engines, yet Ray manages to find the only working vehicle. There’s some glib reference to the solenoid, whatever it takes to separate Ray and the kids from the pack. The rest of the population are merely props, distractions to keep Ray from reaching his goal.

Since the film focuses on Ray and the aliens, it should have called War of the Rays. The writers make little or no effort fleshing out the supporting characters. They’re types, nothing more, written in shorthand. We briefly meet Ray’s neighbor, a new mother who unfortunately can’t dodge alien ray beams like Ray.

Another of Ray’s friends (and her daughter) pop up, just in time to be toasted on the docks of a ferry crossing. On board the ferry, Ray and the kids manage to escape another close call when a Tri-Pod rises out of the water and capsizes the boat. Tim Robbins appears in an extended cameo as a conspiracy theorist who quickly learns the only thing more deadly than the aliens is a father intent on keeping her alive.

Set in a post-9/11 landscape that reflects the paranoia of our time (when the aliens start attacking, Rachel asks if it’s terrorists), War of the Worlds travels a lot of ground to go nowhere. The problem is Spielberg and the writers are totally in love with the concept but unwilling to commit. They take easy outs when something more dark and sinister is called for. Their attempt to paint a happy face on a frown betrays the spirit of the film.

Having been cobbled together on the Q-T, War of the Worlds feels like a brick and mortar effort. The filmmakers literally borrow from numerous other films, hoping a little spit and polish will make them sparkle. They’re wrong. Images that should leave us breathless or aghast feel tired and old. A speeding train engulfed in flames reminded me of the B-B-Q stampede in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! The capsizing ferry, with it’s catapulting people and careening vehicles, brought back flashbacks of the bridge scene in The Mothman Prophecies.

The list goes on and on. Scenes of mass destruction, cities in flames, tall buildings toppling, automobiles and tanker trucks careening through the air, all look and feel generic after Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow, and a dozen other films. Ray’s effort to drive his family to safety are met with hostility when he encounters a mass exodus, a scene right out of Ray Milland’s Panic in the Year Zero. I tried desperately to get lost in the film, but twisted logic kept me at bay. Think Independence Day with all of the fun sucked out of it.

The relationship between the lead characters is extremely contrived, even as the film takes unfathomable time-outs to discuss how they are feeling. As the world is churned into a crimson soaked graveyard, Ray and Rachel manage to gather their thoughts and grab a little shut eye. These quiet moments would be welcome if they moved the story forward or contributed to the emotional outcome. The unbearably long breaks are supposed to give reason to insanity, but they stop the film dead in its tracks.

Breathing life in War of the Worlds is Dakota Fanning, possibly the only real adult in the film. I’ve always been a fan of this little powerhouse, but here she’s like Rocky Balboa. She goes the distance and wins. I love her adult attitude, her ability to be real even when the material isn’t. By the end of the film, Fanning has us eating out of her hands.

In Chatwin’s hands, it’s easy to understand Robbie’s disappointment in his father, or his desire to be a man even if it means the ultimate sacrifice. Fanning and Chatwin work well together, and do what they can to help us believe this is a family and not a film unit.

Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., War of the Worlds deals with an ordinary family reacting to extraordinary, extraterrestrial events. In dealing with malevolent aliens for the first time, Spielberg replaces sincerity with sci-fi razzledazzle. In effect Spielberg has made nothing more than a large-scale disaster film. Things blow up, people die, and we don’t really care. We’re just here for the ride. The ride is okay, but when it’s over you wonder why you waited so long for so little.

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War of the Worlds

Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13. 119 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $5.00

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