Steven Spielberg surprised everyone last summer. His remake of The War of the Worlds is an intelligent and engrossing updating of the original H.G. Wells book, delivered with an intensity seen in few previous science fiction movies.
That's really quite an accomplishment for several reasons. When Hollywood remakes a Sci Fi classic the result is usually a disaster, as with 1986's Invaders from Mars or 1988's The Blob. The remakes fail because their specific fantasies, perfect for a particular time and place, are no longer relevant. It's like telling a bedtime story to adults - not only are they bored with the same plot, they miss Mom and Dad's bedtime manner. The rare movie that improves on the original -- Cronenberg's The Fly is the best example - re-thinks the original concept for a new era. The 1958 Fly functions well enough when regarded from a certain nostalgic angle. The '85 Fly is a much more complex fusion of fears and anxieties.
The new War of the Worlds shows Spielberg doing what he does best, pulling new brilliance out of established genres. When we first heard of the remake our initial response was that the Invasion from Space movie had already been tapped out by Independence Day, a splashy but ultimately empty spectacle. Spielberg goes an opposite direction, embracing the events and atmosphere of the 1898 book. H.G. Wells' diary-like account of life under the heel of Martian invaders can be interpreted as the author's anticipation of 20th century wars fought with terrible technological weapons. This War of the Worlds is about much more than monsters from space -- it imagines the terror of war already suffered by much of the rest of the world being visited upon our 'complacent and secure' homeland.
Comparing War of the Worlds to Independence Day shows Spielberg's film to be far superior. The 1996 Fourth of July blockbuster celebrates the possibilities of big-time digital effects and 'borrowing' ideas from other films as is convenient. The biggest lift is the conception of giant spaceships parked over major cities from Arthur C. Clarke's unfilmed book Childhood's End, but almost everything else in the show is purloined from the George Pal 1953 version, including the specific staging of an attempted atom-bombing of an alien ship. "Bigger is Better" visual effects dominate the movie and remain its only lasting thrill. For a dramatic ending we get lame computer virus hacking and jingoistic last-stand speeches from a warrior President.
War of the Worlds takes most of its inspiration from H.G. Wells' source novel. The 1898 book was a simple first-person account of one Englishman's struggle to stay alive and rejoin his wife during a devastating alien attack. We stay with the narrator completely, knowing only what he knows and sharing his fear of what he doesn't know. Only infrequently does the book discuss the scope of the Martian invasion. As if acknowledging the inadvisability of having the one narrator present at too many cataclysmic events, Wells includes a sequence the narrator hears about only later. A ferryboat attempts to reach the hoped-for security of France, only to be cut off by a tripod fighting machine that wades into the offshore shallows. Before it can turn its heat ray on the ferry, the tripod is challenged by the day's most formidable Earth weapon, an iron dreadnaught battleship. The alien regards the charging ship for a moment, wondering if it has been outmatched.
Josh Friedman and David Koepp's screenplay reworks this episode and many others into a storyline that adheres closely to Ray Ferrier's personal experience. Ferrier never really gets the big picture and a large part of his burden is avoiding panic over doubt and uncertainty. Twenty four hours after the first attacks he still thinks there is only one fighting machine, when hundreds are sweeping the nation. In other words, Americans like Ray are subjected to the terrors of war routinely perpetrated on entire populations elsewhere in the world - instability, insecurity and the possibility of random slaughter without warning.
The most obvious difference is that Spielberg's aliens come from underground, from alien machines buried there perhaps thousands of years ago. This ancient invasion idea smacks somewhat of Nigel Kneale and Quatermass and the Pit. It evokes the 'deep cover' paranoia associated with the 9-11 attack of 2001. Poetically speaking, an invasion that originates beneath our feet has other interpretations as well. The aliens were here before us, perhaps even before the Native Americans came. Their eradication of Earthlings is little more than a troublesome pest extermination problem. The writers hint at the obvious fear that terrorists are behind the invasion -- since 9-11 an undefined notion of 'terrorism' has been utilized as an expediting mechanism for countless public measures -- while comparing the alien invaders to an army of occupation. Not only does the insane Harlan Ogilvy bring this up, but Ray's son Robbie is introduced ignoring a report he has to do on the French occupation of Algeria. Occupations never work, the film intones, a debatable issue that depends on where one draws the line between aggressive occupation and colonial husbandry. In any case, War of the Worlds presents a complex picture that avoids immediate interpretation in regards to the present world unrest.
Spielberg follows the Wells book closely enough but never shows an all-out pitched battle between Earth forces and the aliens. We see only the alien rampage and glimpses of ineffective armed resistance. This had to be an important issue in the film's conception - some fans were disappointed when the movie didn't deliver an exhilarating battle sequence of the kind seen in Independence Day. Spielberg must have decided that if he included such a scene audiences would tune out the less spectacular content. Spielberg instead opts to maintain his focus on the Ferriers' personal ordeal.
The channel ferryboat of the book becomes the Hudson river ferry in the movie, and combines with a book passage in which the narrator finds himself on a lonely road caught between war machines standing silhouetted like titans against the night sky. Wells' ferry passengers escape thanks to the suicidal attack of the battleship, but not so Spielberg's helpless refugees, who are mowed down, drowned and driven to their deaths by the aliens' heat rays. 1
The book's narrator is hding in a wrecked house when one of the Martian cylinders lands above, and the aliens bury him alive while digging a nest. This scene is split in two for the movie. Ray's wife's house is partially wiped out when a jet plane (presumably shot down) crashes into it. There are surprisingly few corpses on board, which seems odd as no evidence is shown of human-harvesting tripods in the area. Later, Ray and Rachel voluntarily go into hiding with an addled survivalist who becomes a danger when he cracks up and threatens to give away their presence. The book's narrator spends a week or so in hiding with a similarly unhinged curate, who finally dies on his own. The cellar is explored by a metallic Martian tentacle, which in both film versions becomes a remote spy probe. The curate (and an earlier artilleryman) predicts that the Martians will eventually keep some humans as pets, and enslave some of them as Kapo-like agents to help track down stubborn human survivors.
Spielberg retains the old H.G. Wells premise of victory through bacteria. Although God is still mentioned in Morgan Freeman's bookend narration, the tone at the end of this film is simple Thanksgiving instead of divine intervention. The aliens just didn't do their research, is all, and pay the price of negligence. The germ deliverance of the original novel has been an unfortunate legacy to much of bad Sci Fi, where insoluble monster problems are routinely reversed through completely illogical means (see the Savant review of The Day of the Triffids. Nigel Kneale borrowed the bacilli ex machina ending for his updating of Wells' own fascinating First Men IN the Moon.
The Spielberg movie also expands on Wells' concept of the Red Weeds. They're barely mentioned in the book but here become evidence of the aliens' desire to re-form Earth for their own needs - the fast-growing vines are filled with a fluid resembling blood. Wells' tentacled Martians were also vampires that sucked human blood, and Spielberg has them collecting victims in going-to-market baskets similar to the robot-roundup scene in Artificial Intelligence A.I. . In the book the aliens also employed poison gas, something not touched upon here. The use of gas reached awful levels in WW1, lending more weight to the notion of H.G. Wells as a forecaster of Brave New Wars.
What Savant dreaded most about seeing War of the Worlds came from misleading reports that it was going to be yet another Spielberg 'family' film soaked in platitude-heavy sentimentality. Some Spielberg dramas are overburdened with simplistic ploys for audience sympathy. To take one example, the basically good Catch Me If You Can almost ruins itself with a staring-in-a-Christmas-window scene that would put Charles Dickens off his feed. The last thing I wanted to see was a Feel-Good invasion where The Family rebuffs those nasty critters from space, so they can play Goofy Golf and eat at McDonald's in peace.
So it was big surprise to see family concerns (and Tom Cruise movie vehicle issues) sublimated into the story. Cruise spends most of the film running in terror and cowering as he should. Yes, there are vestiges of the old way of doing things - Cruise dodges heat rays, flying cars and exploding buildings and the highways crowded with immobile cars leave a convenient pathway for their fleeing stolen mini-van. But with the exception of the rather gung-ho 'hand grenade up the alien tookus' scene, most of what Cruise's Ray Ferrier does is an exercise in frustration, as it would be for most of us. Ray, Rachel and Robbie survive because they're good at keeping their heads down and not getting caught up in the mass stampede around them. All of the performances are very good, especially Dakota Fanning's miraculously detailed Rachel. She conjures up a dozen different kinds of scared, from simple shock to exhausted desperation. And she convinces as a kid who wants to hear her favorite lullabye from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You know, from when she was little.
The special effects are handsome and interesting, with the anachronistic tripod fighting machines a unique creation. They're so big that they tower into the sky; if they have a weakness it's that they seem to be made of sheet metal and jet turbine parts. The aliens themselves are elaborate tripod creatures lacking in interest. Spielberg also borrows subtle ideas and visuals from earlier movies. The fighting machine cruising underwater alongside the ferry boat reminds us of the attacking Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, while the corkscrew motion of the pavement in Hoboken (and the vortex in the river) evoke both the unscrewing meteor hatch from the book, and the preferred tunneling method of The Mysterians: Remember the piece of Japanese landscape that revolves like a record turntable under an unlucky JDF tank?
Spielberg gives the invaders force-field defenses that no longer need explanation, although we secretly imagine that if the aliens invaded Iraq, an average weeks' deployment of roadside IEDs and suicide bombers might be pretty effective against them. War of the Worlds does the military no favors by showing them repeatedly attacking with tactics already proved ineffective. Army strategists surely have 1001 fall-back weapons ideas that our valiant soldiers would be perfectly willing to test, no matter how risky the combat. If it were the only way, I'm sure our soldiers would volunteer as suicide bombers, too.
War of the Worlds' convincing scenes of panic and terror end up far in the plus column - it's easy to identify with Ray Ferrier's desperate efforts to save his son and daughter and the stalking alien monsters are nightmarishly real. I've talked to people, even reviewers, who have told me they are predisposed not to see the film because it's too close to the feelings about 9-11. I believe the film is a responsible and useful fantasy. Other doomsday scenarios stress the need for ruthless action to survive (Panic in Year Zero!, No Blade of Grass); this movie says that compassion and sticking together are important too.
Paramount's DVD of War of the Worlds, 2 disc Limited Edition has the expected fine enhanced transfer on disc one and most of the extras on disc two. Simpler editions are available in both widescreen and adapted-Scan versions; the film was not in Panavision on movie screens. If you grab for this title in a super-mart, be sure to read all the print on the cover to get the one you want. The image has the slight visual degradation that adds grain and makes fire look slightly burned out. It's a good approximation of the theatrical experience, where the film's impact was much greater. Audio is available in Dolby and DTS 5.1.
Disc two contains most of the goodies, about 2.5 hours' worth of production docus by Laurent Bouzereau, official Spielberg DVD VAM producer. They start with concept development and a short pre-production period. The brief shooting schedule started with Spielberg filming all of the effects live-action first to give ILM time to put it all together. No matter how one stacks it up, it's still an EPK from the filmmaker's perspective - everything that happens is a miracle of cooperation and harmony, and there are regular infusions of Tom Cruise, Spielberg and little Dakota Fanning being charming, along with little producer-director confabs that might as well be staged. As is usual with these shows, the best content addresses the methodology behind the effects. We learn that the street that cracks and crumbles under the bystanders at the first alien encounter was completely added in post-production.
Although it's easy to find more reasonable pricing, we still wonder why the Limited Edition has such a high base price ($40) when Warners routinely offers two-disc sets with just as much content in the $20 to $30 range. Criterion's prices can seem steep until one considers how much material they must license, often including the film itself. The hours of documentary footage contain only a few outside stills, along with footage from the original 1953 version which probably cost nothing. Everything else is simply production B-Roll and interview footage from DreamWorks' shoot.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
War of the Worlds rates:
1. By the way, the new heat ray is an unnerving electronic zapper that seems to freeze-dry victims with concentrated microwaves - people grimace in pain and then explode into powder, leaving their clothing flapping in the heat-draft. It's pretty chilling, almost as sanitary a device as the "electro-defragmentizer" from Our Man Flint. Instant traumatic cremation: Ray Ferrier finds it difficult to shake the terror of the attack when he's thoroughly dusted with powdered humanity. By avoiding showing a single bloody corpse, Spielberg also circumvents the censorship vigilance of the MPAA. As Lt. Colonel Kilgore might say, somebody got a case of beer for dreaming up that concept.