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2005-07-01 08:55:53 (link)
War of the Worlds - Review!

In the last 30 years, Steven Spielberg has cranked out an extraordinary number of huge hit films, and on occasion, truly great ones. His biggest splashes have been with monsters (“Jaws”), war (“Saving Private Ryan”), aliens (“E.T.”), sci-fi (“Jurassic Park”), epic human loss (“Schindler’s List”), and guys in hats (“Indiana Jones”). So he’s obviously going for the gold when he makes a movie like “War of the Worlds” that somehow manages to combine all of those ingredients.

But while the new release proves once again that Spielberg is as cinematically gifted as he is successful, it ultimately amounts to little more than the biggest-budget horror movie ever made, devoid of the warmth and emotional strength of the director’s best work.

“War of the Worlds” stars Tom Cruise as James Ferrier, a New Jersey construction worker and divorced father of two. When his pregnant and comfortably remarried ex-wife drops off his two kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) to stay with him for the weekend, Ferrier finds himself more distant than ever from his offspring.

But indifferent children quickly become the least of his parental concerns when a series of overwhelming lightning storms turn out to be the opening stages of an attack by super-advanced aliens looking to decimate the Earth and its human population. The movie follows Ferrier’s struggles to find safety for his children as the Northeastern U.S. is turned into a wasteland.

While the movie may focus on one family and feature the biggest movie star on the planet, “War of the Worlds” is all about Spielberg. And he does pull out all the stops, to magnificent effect. He keeps the tension high throughout, and creates dazzling visuals, once again making more seamless use of CGI than any other director. And where movies like “Independence Day” use alien invasions as a foundation for visual cartoonery, Spielberg plays it totally straight, crafting a genuinely chilling and devastatingly believable vision of terror that even our imaginations could never articulate so completely.

This masterstroke of visual creation is certainly more impressive and effective than any such work in his own sci-fi past or that of any of his contemporaries. But there is still something inevitably unsatisfying about a movie where story and characters are almost entirely subverted in favor of sheer spectacle, just as was the case with “Jurassic Park,” which was also adapted by scripter David Koepp. The 116-minute “Worlds” could probably have all its dialogue fit on three double-spaced pages.

For all the thin family drama and requisite Spielberg cheesiness, the characters are just an easy means for observing the invasion and subsequent experience. The director further emphasizes this with self-referential winks, like the constant forming of awed crowds and the frequent appearance of video cameras and picture-snapping onlookers.

All of this leaves an impressive cast looking pretty useless. Cruise doesn’t fit as a construction worker, since dirt doesn’t really stick to him. In his younger days, like in “Cocktail,” he could play blue collar characters whose clean, youthful looks made them stick out from their peers, and it served a purpose. Now, he’s just a conspicuously well-groomed guy in the early portion of middle age, which works dandily for “Jerry Maguire,” but not for material like this. And Fanning’s now-standard screaming, bug eyes, and inordinate wisdom for a child become kind of grating after two hours of alien attacks.

But the big shame of “War of the Worlds” is that Spielberg, an unparalleled talent for handling grand-scale movies, has poured extraordinary resources into making an alien attack movie in which what you see is all you get. There are plenty of references to 9/11, hinting that Spielberg had something bigger in mind than a simple horror movie. From the signs from people looking for missing loved ones, to Fanning’s cries of “Is it the terrorists?” to a graphic portrayal of a downed airplane, the imagery is unavoidable. But Spielberg never crafts a message more meaningful than “Mass destruction at the hands of aliens would be terribly unfortunate.”

“War of the Worlds” is a loyal if updated adaptation of the book. It’s a worthwhile remake of the first movie. And it’s a brilliant spectacle and a shockingly unnerving fright flick. But that’s it. And it’s hard not to think it could have been more.

by Amos Posner


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