When I heard this was being made, I did wonder what the point of it was. I’m not saying you can’t remake things, but I couldn’t see the purpose behind having another go at a story that has been told many times in a variety of different media. But I decided to take a look because I thought Steven Spielberg could do something different. And I believe he has.
This version plays on the current climate of terror. The idea of something awful and destructive happening and we don’t know what is going on is all the more despairing for the lack of information and understanding. Although it may seem to harken back to the events of September 11, 2001, the film speaks more directly to the fear of the unknown which is heightened in our age when information is immediate and vast. What would happen if you had no electricity, no television or radio for news updates, no apparent authority in charge, just a mass of people trying to survive in fear and panic? It is in this area that War of the Worlds demonstrates its capability to scare and thrill.
Taking the story and placing it in the present on the east coast of the USA, we see freak storms and intense lightning strikes. When all the electrical power is lost, people wander in the direction of the incident to try and find out what is happening. Then, a tripod (more agile than previous cinematic incarnations) erupts from the ground and begins to lay waste to the people in the immediate vicinity. These are some cracking sequences; seeing a crossroads torn up and the tripod rise from the ground and the death ray evaporating the people instantly into ash (but leaving their clothing untouched, causing it to drop like laundry snowfall) is scintillating and terrifying. Spielberg hasn’t lost his ability to scare.
Tom Cruise is still Tom Cruise but without the people doing his hair or picking out his clothes. His range is limited but he allows himself to be at the whim of the story, so we’ll let him off. The interaction with his kids (who see him for the loser he is) is much more interesting, especially with his daughter played by Dakota Fanning. This is a child actress who can act without being cute or annoying. It’s a shame that she has to spend a lot of the last third screaming, as it’s quite a waste.
There is a palpable sense of dread and doom and reality to the film, as we see the reactions of normal people in horrible situations. It’s also scary because of how much isn’t told; an invasion film is usually about identifying the enemy and working out how to kill them. But this film, staying with the book, doesn’t have that, so we are kept in the dark as much as the characters, allowing us to identify and empathise with them more easily (which I always find difficult to do with Cruise.)
The scene with Tim Robbins slightly jars here, as it seems an excuse for a creepy turn in the middle of the film, with the character having the same name as an astronomer in the book. Spielberg comes out of it well with the periscopic tentacle of the tripod worming through the basement looking for signs of life, a wonderfully nerve-jangling episode.
Spielberg keeps this feeling up for most of the film, but is slightly let down by a sentimental ending. When you have a film where people have been dying constantly throughout, it seems stretching reality if the son can’t die, even though he is in the middle of a big explosion, just so there can be a touching father-son reunion at the end. There is also a feeling of allowing Cruise’s character to be more proactive near the end, where he destroys one of the tripods. The film works better when our protagonists are reacting, as we would in the situation, but perhaps they felt the need for the ‘hero’ of the piece to do something to warrant the connection. Priest hits the nail on the head here [EDIT: dead link] when he says that because we’re watching Tom Cruise, we’re expecting him to do Tom Cruise things, but if they had cast an unknown in the same role, you can see it as a family drama and it would be more satisfying.
So, in conclusion, I thought the film was a mostly taut piece of cinema, with the exception of some flappy parts towards the end. I wouldn’t buy it on DVD, but I’d definitely say you should watch it when it comes out on DVD.
I hope that long-winded rambling keeps you going, as I’ll be away from the internet for a few days, when I’ll hopefully have some comic reviews to share.