Dir:Steven Spielberg. US. 2005. 116 mins.
It'salmost as if there are two Steven Spielbergs behind the camera on thiscontemporary version of H G Wells' classic sci-fi story about an alien invasionof Earth: one delivers a thrilling action adventure with just the right mix ofhumanity and effects; the other produces a rather aimless family drama withfaint and not terribly interesting political undertones. Fortunately forco-producers Paramount and DreamWorks, Tom Cruise stars for both directors,creating a marquee combination that will undoubtedly lead to one of the biggest- if not perhaps the biggest- worldwide grosses of the so far lackluster summer season.
Cruise,of course, has been working overtime around the world to prepare for the film'snear-worldwide day-and-date launch this weekend, and assuming it doesn'tbackfire the publicity push should produce some very impressive openings.Ultimately, with its relatively dark tone and global theme the film seemslikely to do substantially better internationally than in the US, as has beenthe case with most of Cruise's and Spielberg's recent releases, including their2002 sci-fi collaboration Minority Report.
Inthe US, the new War of the Worlds(the story was previously filmed, with Cold War undertones, in 1953) will havethe long July 4 holiday weekend to make its initial mark. But just how eagerlycelebrating Americans will embrace a movie that's a long way from theflag-waving of an alien invasion romp like Independence Day remains to be seen.
Thefirst forty minutes are classic Spielberg. In a handful of economical scenes,the director introduces divorced dockworker and less-than-perfect dad RayFerrier (Cruise), his ex-wife (Otto), their sulky teenage son Robbie (Chatwin)and young daughter Rachel (Fanning). The kids are reluctantly staying in theirfather's shabby house for the weekend but the domestic hostility is interruptedby a dramatic and spooky storm that kills every car and electrical device inthe small blue-collar town.
Minuteslater, the townspeople stand slack-jawed as a huge, three-legged war machine(not dissimilar to those seen in the fifties movie) bursts out of the groundand starts to vaporize everything in sight.
Theeffects work showing emergence of the machine and the almost instantdestruction of the town is hugely impressive, but Spielberg, using handheldcameras and a style that recalls his early classic Duel, gives most of his attention to Ray and the otherterrified humans as they attempt to flee from the alien 'tripod.' Eventually,Ray finds a working car and he and the kids speed off into the countryside.
Soon,the dysfunctional family joins an exodus of people trying to escape from theinvasion force of alien-manned tripods. This sequence seems to come from theSpielberg of Saving Private Ryan,with a gritty, realistic tone (heightened by the cinematography of Ryan DoPJanusz Kaminski) and an emphasis less on effects and more on human reactions.There are hints of a topical subtext - co-writer and Spielberg regular DavidKoepp has said he sees the project as an "anti-Iraq War film" - butnothing controversial enough to interfere with the movie's commercialpotential.
Next,Ray and Rachel take refuge in the basement of secluded house. Though itincludes a taught cat-and-mouse scene with one of the tripods' mechanizedtentacles, and the first glimpse of the aliens themselves, the extendedbasement episode kills the story's momentum. And the new character itintroduces - Robbins' slightly nutty house owner - is quickly removed from thestory.
Thefilm's final segment brings Ray and Rachel into perilous contact with thetripods. But in revealing the only use the aliens have for the humaninhabitants of earth the film comes very close to sci-fi parody. And the meansby which the invaders are eventually stopped gives the story a disappointinglyanticlimactic ending.
Thefilm's family drama aspect might have worked better if the script had foundroom for more characters - Ray's son is inexplicably removed from the storyhalf way through - or if the project had been more adventurously cast. Fanning(best known from I Am Sam, ManOn Fire and Hide And Seek) does a good job providing the motivation for Ray'snewfound sense of responsibility. But Cruise is just too clean cut to make Ray'sarc from unpleasant slob to caring dad believable or truly affecting.
Prodcos: Paramount Pictures,DreamWorks Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, Cruise/Wagner Productions.
Dists:Paramount (US), DreamWorks/UIP(intl).
Prods:Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson.
Execprod: Paula Wagner.
Scr:Josh Friedman, David Koepp, basedon the novel by H G Wells.
Proddes: Rick Carter.
Seniorvisual effects supervisor: DennisMuren.
Main cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto, JustinChatwin, Tim Robbins.