© 2005 Ray Wong
Stars: Tom Cruise, Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, David Alan Basche
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Josh Friedman, David Koepp (based on novel by H.G. Wells)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and language
Running time: 116 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 7
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 10
Editing – 9
Production – 10
Total Score – 8.5 out of 10
When Orson Welles did the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1938, it scared the bejesus out of everyone. Today, the discerning audience is more skeptical and sophisticated, but Steven Spielberg’s new cinematic version would most likely scare up a hell of a box office take.
New Yorker Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is an irresponsible father of teenager Robbie (Chatwin) and pre-teen Rachel (Fanning). Divorced from his wife Mary Ann (Otto), Ray has partial custody of the kids but he chooses only to see once every several weeks. Ray promises to take care of them when Mary Ann and her new husband Tim (Basche) leave to visit the in-laws in Boston. Instead, he’s still the same slacker bum of a father.
Then something happens. A strange electro-magnetic storm hits the city, sending multiple bolts of lightning to the ground and disabling all electrical equipments. Soon, giant mechanical tripods emerge from the ground and begin to destroy the city, nuking people running for their lives. Ray snatches his kids and begins their own escape for survival. As the world fend for itself against the mass destruction of these alien intruders, Ray must learn to grow up as a father and defend his children.
“This is no war; it’s an extermination” pretty much sums up the stakes.
Cruise (COLLATERAL) plays a reluctant hero (well, sort of) with good intention. He’s a solid and intense actor, although his range of emotions and expressions are rather limited here. But it doesn’t matter. Fanning (HIDE AND SEEK) plays a girl who screams, kicks, yells and gets scared to good effect. She has almost as much screen time as Cruise. But it doesn’t matter. Chatwin (TAKING LIVES) plays Ray’s detached and defiant son with nice determination and steely eyes. But it doesn’t matter. Robbins (CODE 46) plays the neurotic survivor Ogilvy with great creepiness – we don’t know if we should root for the guy or the aliens who want to kill him. But it doesn’t matter. Otto (LORD OF THE RINGS) and Basche (CARRY ME HOME) and just about 3000 other actors are merely extras. But it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is the visuals and the storytelling director Spielberg (MINORITY REPORT) imposes on us. Spielberg truly is a master storyteller. From the first frame on, the film is breathtaking. There is enough tension in almost every scene to suspend ten Brooklyn Bridges. The imageries are simply stunning, haunting, and oftentimes frightening. From the first appearance of the tripods to the mass destruction of the cities and the decimation of people, there are too many of these incredible moments to list. They knock the wind out of us.
In a way, the film is so taut and captivating that we would hardly notice the logical flaws or plot holes or the coincidences. I mean, if I really want to pick it apart, I could: from minor things such as video cameras and military vehicles and ferries that continue to work while everything else electrical (including cars) has been disabled, to the Hollywood-sappy ending that is a notch too optimistic and silly. There are many questions unanswered: Where do the aliens come from? What do they want? How do they get here? Why did they wait a million years and not before there were humans? Why didn’t they do more research before arriving on our planet? Why do they kill people but harvest them at the same time? Perhaps it’s the filmmakers’ intention to leave these questions hanging in our heads. In the end, the answers are probably not that important.
Spielberg knows what really is important. His vision and the script by veteran screenwriter Koepp (SPIDER-MAN) touch on many grand themes, albeit sometimes superficially. From the existential question of our survival and the reversal of roles (we may think twice the next time we kill a nest of ants or slaughter a cow) to the ideas of individual heroism and total social collapse during crises. How naïve we all are and how scared we can be. Obviously, Spielberg evokes intense emotions with imageries that resemble 9/11 and its aftermath, but he shows restraint for not over-manipulating us. It doesn’t matter. This film is so enthralling and mesmerizing that one can simply appreciate it for what it is: great, mind-blowing entertainment with a hopeful ending that leaves us breathless. And isn’t that what this world of wars needs?