Archive for Thursday, June 30, 2005

War’ captures intensity of alien invasion

(PG-13) ***

June 30, 2005

Steven Spielberg is as familiar with aliens as he is Indiana Jones or sharks.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Spielberg has always depicted extra-terrestrials in a positive light -- whether they're benevolent communicators ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), childlike buddies ("E.T.") or inquisitive explorers ("A.I. Artificial Intelligence").

Until now.

There are no touchy-feely vibes from the aliens in "War of the Worlds." These slimy creatures are as cold and malevolent as the rogue great white in "Jaws."

The byproduct of this depiction is that the Oscar-winning director delivers a film that is more horror than adventure. He fashions a rather old-fashioned nail-biter that is unrelenting in its depiction of death and destruction ... up until an awkward happy ending of the type that Spielberg has been unable to sidestep his whole career.

The structure of the picture follows H.G. Wells' 1898 novel. But instead of filtering the story through the eyes of the military/scientific community, as in the memorable 1953 version, the film is told solely through an average Joe.

Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a crane operator on the New Jersey docks. His ex-wife (Miranda Otto) is leaving their children, teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and grade-schooler Rachel (Dakota Fanning), for the weekend while she and her new husband visit relatives in Boston.

Ray isn't very close to his kids, who consider him an irresponsible, absentee father. But when mammoth combat vehicles begin bursting up through the ground, the family becomes a whole lot closer.

Rachel wonders, "Is it the terrorists?"

Not exactly.

The three fight their way out of the city as they gradually discover the entire world is under attack from alien invaders.

The idea of monsters from outer space taking over the planet is nothing new, and "War of the Worlds" isn't all that different from "Independence Day" on a lot of levels. Even the idea of how a small family would react to a large-scale occupation was already explored in "Signs."

Spielberg and writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp don't score any points for innovation;

, they get by on atmosphere and intensity. "War of the Worlds" takes a fanciful idea and makes it feel like it's really happening. (That believability factor famously led to mass hysteria during Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of the same material.)

The filmmaker first creates a solid family dynamic -- even the overexposed Cruise manages to immerse himself in the role and not be so "Tom Cruisey" -- and then keeps the story squarely focused on the Ferriers.

For a solid hour, the movie ratchets up the suspense with one spectacular sequence after another, from the initial street-level assault to a Titanic-like capsizing of a ferry that the trio is attempting to board. It's refreshing for a change to see an apocalyptic vision that doesn't include shots of prominent world monuments being obliterated.

"War of the Worlds" only starts to leak momentum once the clan holes up inside a farmhouse cellar shared by a lone wacko (Tim Robbins in full "Mystic River" mode). Curiously, it's here that the picture drags AND feels rushed.

Just when Cruise and company begin to find a way to apply a little insurgency to their oppressors, the film abruptly ends. While the climax echoes Wells' original vision, it doesn't exactly make for a slam-bang finale.

Wells had nothing to do with the tacked-on epilogue, however.

Spielberg has proven over and over -- "Saving Private Ryan," "Empire of the Sun," "The Terminal," etc. -- that he will insert a pro-family ending, even when it doesn't make any contextual sense. (So, the whole world lies in ruins except for the swanky block where Ray's ex-wife has endured the invasion? Robbie the rebellious teen flaunts his independence by running home to mommy?)

Spielberg may have conquered aliens throughout his career, but he seems unable to win a battle with his own cinematic conclusions.

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