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War of The Worlds – Shock, Awe and Irony from Spielberg

Not little - nor green

Not little - nor green

War of the Worlds – Steven Spielgberg

I wonder whether the irony in Spielberg’s SFX blockbuster is intentional. If so, will its American audience get it? A massive invasion by an enemy displaying overwhelming, irresistible force, destroy everything in their path: people, buildings, cities. Shock and Awe as ever was. The Alien invaders display a total indifference and callousness towards all that opposes them, especially humans, who they obliterate, or capture, cage, and use for food. Even death is depicted in a detached way, at least early on, when all that is left of an explosively vaporised body, is the clothing floating, empty in the air. This is one of a number of pretty dumb things in this movie. After all, a death ray that explodes bone, muscle, sinew and blood, yet leaves fragile cloth to flutter to the earth like the end of a launderette drying cycle? Not since the unstoppable Aliens in the ludicrous, paranoid ‘Signs’, were found to withstand everything humans threw at them except a drop of rain or a glass of water has the desire for a nice image triumphed so totally over common sense.

The irony thing is worth considering further. A seriously misused Tim Robbins playing a hit-back-at-em survival freak, says he is on a different page to Tom Cruise who just wants to keep himself and his daughter alive. Robbins remarks: “Occupations never work.” Hmm Steven, don’t tell us….tell…. If irony is his game, Spielberg misses his best chance. Cruise’s Ray Ferrier gets the first Alien to be destroyed, by almost being sucked into its spaceship and on just escaping, leaves a few unpinned grenades behind. The most successful strategy against the overwhelming impregnability of the Aliens is clear – suicide bombers. For the price of a relatively few lives and grenades, the vulnerability of the invaders would be painfully exposed. Maybe this would be a touch too ironic for Steven or his mainstream US box office.

Visually ‘WOTW’ is dark, broody and drenched in dystopian reds and blacks. The unrelenting special effects rush us headlong through a pretty thin adaptation of Wells’ story. It is strange that the brilliant director of ‘Jaws’ who knew how to ratchet up tension and fear for about 40 minutes before we even saw the shark, launches us straight into direct visual confrontation with the Alien tripods in ‘WOTW’. What follows is more of a non-stop chase movie than a dramatically cadenced piece of work. ‘WOTW’ has one pace – breakneck. This is its narrative weakness: after all, as we all sort of know how it ends, surely it is the variation of pace and unexpected tense situations along the way that would offer us the best thrills? It seems perverse that a film-maker with Spielberg’s usually fine-tuned commercial instincts should have opted for such one-paced reliance on special effects; however good they are. There are no moments of calm in the movie when the characters and the audience can have a breather and then be freshly surprised by the next exciting change of pace.

Cruise is not bad, continuing his play-against-persona style rolled out in ‘Collateral’. But the superb 11 year-old Dakota Fanning as his daughter Rachel is inspired casting. She steals every scene she’s in and has most of the best lines, including one lulu about her allergy to peanut butter. Almost everyone else in the movie is cardboard, which at least burns well, so the actors have a pretty tough time.

If you want to see lots of well conceived SFX set pieces; masterfully managed crowd scenes, at the service of a kind of unrelieved dramatic dread about the elimination of all human life, ‘WOTW’ will satisfy. But be warned: the 12A certificate is I think misjudged. Not because there is a lot of death and destruction, though there is, but because some impressionable sub-12’s could very well identify with Rachel’s terror and might find that very disturbing. This isn’t fear of danger, it’s dread at annihilation.

‘WOTW’ sort of works on a soon forgotten level. It has its moments of suspense, the best nicked from ET, but fewer than it should. Worth a look, but if you are taking a sub-12, know your kid or play safe. The one big surprise of ‘WOTW’: no bloody dog that impossibly survives. Here, everything that moves gets it: including in the end the aliens themselves. We must hope that is not an irony where life imitates art.

(July 2005)

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