Steven Spielberg is widely credited as having invented the summer blockbuster. His Jaws was the first film of its kind, a massive and unstoppable ticket-selling machine, just as single-minded as the shark itself. But the blockbusters that have come after have strayed from the Jaws blueprint – it’s easy to forget that Jaws isn’t a movie about a shark, but a movie about people. Who happen to be getting eaten by a shark.
Spielberg hasn’t forgotten. It seemed like he did – many of his films between then and now have been bloated beasts, more about the effects and the whiz-bang than about the people. In fact, it seemed like Spielberg split into two directors – the one who cared about the people at the center of his films, the guy who made Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple; and the Spielberg who made movies that were bigger than anything you had ever seen before. That was the guy who made The Lost World and Hook. It seemed, from a fan’s point of view, that maybe the two Spielbergs would never get back together, that there was going to be this dichotomy in the man’s work forever. It seemed like he attempted to address it in Minority Report, but there was something overwhelming in that film’s set pieces. You look back at Jaws and remember the three leads sitting in the belly of the Orca, trading scar stories. You look back at Minority Report and remember explosions and jetpacks and chase scenes.
There’s no scene in War of the Worlds that even comes close to that moment in Jaws, but the film is a step in that direction. The anti-Independence Day, War of the Worlds is set against a huge, epic backdrop of man’s battle with an unstoppable horde of invading aliens – but our heroes have nothing to do with it. If there’s anything that War of the Worlds resembles most it’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the main characters come and go through a much larger – and better known – story.
Tom Cruise is Ray Ferrier. I wonder what sort of coincidence that name is – in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, a man obsessed with getting closer to the aliens. Ray Ferrier’s got the exact opposite reaction (and rightly so. By the way, the Tripods announce their intentions with a startling blast of sound that reminded me very much of the tuba-like tone that first comes from the spaceships in Close Encounters). The film opens with Ray at work on the docks somewhere in New Jersey. His home is a little shabby, with engine parts all over the kitchen table. He’s a divorced dad and his kids are coming to stay for the weekend. Neither of the kids are terribly excited about the prospect – Ray’s an arrested adolescent, but not the kind that’s fun to hang out with. He’s the kind of guy who seems a little resentful of the kids for impeding his bachelor lifestyle.
Spielberg takes his time with the opening scenes. He builds a nicely dystopic household – it’s sort of like Elliot’s homelife in ET, but with less love. Spielberg’s not afraid to make Roy an honest to God dick, a guy who just doesn’t know how to connect with his kids.
All through the opening fifteen minutes we catch ominous snatches of information about mysterious lightning storms in Europe. Soon, a bizarre storm cloud hovers over New York City, seen in the distance from Ray’s Newark home. Then all hell breaks loose.
The next forty minutes of War of the Worlds contains some of the best work of Spielberg’s career. He hasn’t just gone back to Jaws to remember that the best big movies are about the little people – he’s also gone back and remembered what it’s like to scare the living shit out of an audience. And I don’t mean just jump scares, which any hack can do. Spielberg builds the suspense into real terror, and as the first of the Tripods come bursting out of the street (they’re already here, after all) and start incinerating people, you can only stare at the screen in open-mouthed shock and awe.
There’s no way to make a film of mass destruction post-9/11 and not be aware of what the reality is like. Beyond any subtextual aspects (and we’ll get to those later – fire up your hate mail!), Spielberg cannily plays with the imagery of 9/11 to create touchstones of fear – the Tripod rays turn people into dust, and the fleeing Ray runs through clouds of it, covering himself in white soot. Anyone who watched the footage of the aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers is familiar with people who were ghostly white, and it crossed everyone’s minds that the dust was – on some level – people.
Part of what makes these scenes also work so well is how they’re all street level – Spielberg shoots the initial destruction from the point of view of the people. There was surely temptation to lodge his virtual camera way up above the action, getting sweeping views of carnage and destruction, but he keeps things down where we can identify with them.
What’s really impressive is that by not distancing his camera from the violence he keeps it nasty. War of the Worlds is an almost unrelentingly brutal film, pushing the boundaries of what a PG-13 movie should be. It isn’t that the violence is gory – people getting dusted isn’t terribly explicit – but that it’s visceral. It feels real. There’s a scene where dozens of corpses come floating down a river that’s truly upsetting. Another has people trapped in a submerged car drowning. War of the Worlds made me more upset than a summer blockbuster has any right to.
It’s not just the violence that’s upsetting. Again, Spielberg reaches into recent disasters to find imagery and moments that resonate. There’s the boards crammed with pictures of the “missing.” One moment that shook me – and it’s a small moment – is a nurse announcing that they don’t need any more blood donations. I remember a moment just like that on 9/11 when I was turned away from a hospital where I went to donate – people that day mostly either died or made it. There were few injuries.
He also nails the fog of disaster. The movie never lets us know anything that Ray and his family wouldn’t know. They hear rumors and whispers of events – did the Japanese manage to destroy one of the seemingly invincible Tripods? – but Ray and his kids never know what’s really going on.
I truly appreciate how strictly Spielberg sticks to that. There’s a scene where the family is on foot in some New England hills and tanks and jets and helicopters are heading to a group of Tripods, ready for battle. Spielberg takes us to just under the top of a hill, the other side of which a massive battle is raging. But Ray never goes over the hill, and so we never see it. That’s balls – here’s a huge summer movie and the director is essentially withholding the money shot. It’s that shark in Jaws all over again – it works much better when we don’t see it.
To be fair, the movie’s not perfect. The first hour or so maintains an incredible level of tension and horror, but the movie can’t sustain that. When the characters end up in Tim Robbin’s basement, some of the air goes out of the film. The sequence is too long, and while I see the claustrophobic fear that Spielberg is trying to elicit, he just doesn’t make it happen. What’s worst, though, is that at this point in the film the Spielberg of Jurassic Park makes a guest appearance – while our heroes hide out, aliens come into the basement and poke around. It’s a replay of the raptors in the kitchen scene, and it’s too “thrilling” and not scary enough. It’s too bad because the basement scene comes just after what would have been, in any other movie, a massive set piece – an attack on a ferry boat. Spielberg keeps that sequence grounded in horror, though, and not in action-adventure thrills. And while I think that the film earns a happy ending, the last minute is so over the top happy that future viewings will surely end right before that point.
Things remain mostly grim, though. In fact, the basement sequence is one of two scenes in the movie that I almost can’t believe are in a Spielberg film (the other is an intense carjacking/mob scene that’s incredibly pessimistic about people in times of crisis). There’s a lot of that in the movie, and there are moments that made me really smile, where the classical Spielberg-type shots – a camera craning away from people looking up at the sky – are inverted so that they’re about horror and not wonder.
But dark and gritty doesn’t make a movie great. What makes a movie great are the ideas in it, the smarts that are rattling around behind the action and spectacle. War of the Worlds is full of ideas, and it’s the kind of movie you can spend hours and hours talking about afterwards. What’s really great is that the text is elastic enough to support many metaphorical conclusions – some of them completely opposed to each other. There’s a scene where Ray essentially becomes a suicide bomber – how are we supposed to read that in a film where characters talk about the fact that occupation armies never win? There’s definite War on Terror vibes here, but which side of the war? In the 1953 version the Martians worked as Russians – we could believably fear their technology. But in 2005 our enemies are essentially as primitive to us as we are to the aliens. And the specter of a technologically superior people laying waste to a population that has no real way to fight back is reminiscent of many scenes on CNN.
Walking out of the theater that’s what made me not just like War of the Worlds but love it. I don’t have a lot of interest in movies that leave me with nothing to talk about but how cool the effects were or how exciting that chase was or how close to the comic book it was. I want a movie that’s going to entertain me and make me think at the same time. For some people – the “turn your mind off” or the “it’s a rollercoaster ride” crowd – these two things do not mix. For the average summer film real subtext, honest to God metaphor, is anathema. But Spielberg comes out swinging – he wants to prove that you can have a movie that’s exciting and scary and has characters whose arcs you care about and believe in and that also gives you a conversation starter.
The best science fiction isn’t bullshit space opera laser gun nonsense – that stuff’s nice in moderation, sure. But the real good science fiction is the stuff that shows us our lives and our world through a fantastical prism. The best science fiction realizes that aliens are cool, but aliens with something to say are even cooler.
There’s a ton more I could ramble on about – the actors are uniformly great (Tom Cruise actually works well playing a complete dick, and I appreciate the fact that Ray’s arc takes a long time to get to the inevitable “I’m a good dad now” ending). ILM, who has been spotty for the last few years, turns in amazing effects, made all the better by the offhand way they’re used. Here’s a lesson for future blockbusters – the effects work best when they aren’t the center of the shot, when they’re allowed to be an organic part of the film.
It’s actually hard for me to imagine people not liking this film. War of the Worlds is, hands down, the best big budget film of the summer. Maybe the year. Spielberg has crafted a real classic, a film that delivers on every level it should.
9.2 out of 10