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War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds
2005 / 116 min. /
Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman
Cinematography Janusz Kaminski
Production Designer Rick Carter
Art Direction Tony Fanning, Andrew Menzies, Edward Pisoni, Tom Warren
Film Editor Michael Kahn
Senior Effects Supervisor Dennis Muren
Original Music John Williams
Written by Josh Friedman, David Koepp from the novel by H.G. Wells
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Paula Wagner, Colin Wilson
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant joined the multitudes yesterday, took in Spielberg's War of the Worlds and was very pleased by it. Although not a bounty of surprises, it was very surprising to see Tom Cruise play a genuine ordinary guy instead of his usual obnoxious persona. Kenneth Turan's review worried me because he said the movie was excellent yet only praised its character interaction - Savant feared another Spielberg bonding movie wherein an alien invasion became a pretext for a father to heartwarmingly re-connect (sniff!) with his kids. That happens but thankfully is not the whole show.

Spielberg and writer David Koepp do a minimal update to the 1899 original, retaining most of the novel's setpieces intact and slipping in only a few key lines and visuals from the bravura 1953 George Pal version (itself set to be reissued in November, according to authority Bill Warren, in a remastered superduper special edition DVD). Just as in the book, we're limited to what Cruise's main character sees and hears. That sometimes seems disappointing, as when an entire military assault happens offscreen, just over a hill. I think the only legit complaint from some audience members is that although we get many chilling scenes of the towering alien war machines (here called Tripods) in action, there are no rousing battles per se, only a repetitive series of staggering defeats that properly reflects the tone of the book: "The rout of humanity, the massacre of mankind."

The machines are curiously old-fashioned metal monsters but good CGI makes them into terrifying juggernauts, often seen massing on horizons while thousands of people flee in terror. The Tripods give out with scary klaxon-like horns before pressing their attacks, and what we see of them is all shown in nervous impressionistic splashes - whatever details Cruise might pick up as he scrambles for safety.

When we finally see the actual monsters they aren't as scary as was the 1953 xenomorph cooked up for Pal by Albert Nozaki and Charles Gemora, and many viewers are going to wish that Cruise could just park the kids somewhere and find out if an axe or a sharp stick might send an alien running. WOTW is like a real-life war in that one cannot pick personal fights in the middle of a hostile invasion and expect some wonderful coincidence to come to the rescue. The movie actually has the guts not to do anything for an effect ... a serious attitude in Spielberg's approach that puts War of the Worlds among his best work.

Spielberg goes lightly on the politics, making several references to invasion-occupation stragegies - a school report about France and Algeria, for starters. The film in general implies that the alien's overpowering weaponry is much like using helicopters and smart bombs against Third World populations that can't defend themselves. Spielberg is wise to put the line "occupations never work" into the mouth of a borderline lunatic - few viewers are going to come away with the notion that WOTW is an anti-Iraq statement.

War of the Worlds is satisfying because it doesn't pander with a political message or press too heavily with Spielberg's frequent audience sap: "Life will find a way," etc.. H.G. Wells' original gave God full credit for slaying the vermin from Mars and the pious George Pal soaked his version with churchy sentiments, but Spielberg drops most all of the religious context. No need to give some pundit ammunition to decide that War of the Worlds is covertly telling us to ban abortions or stop stem cell research.

Savant hasn't seen a satisfactory Science Fiction movie of this kind in ages (this doesn't count the Science Fantasy-Buck Rogers world of Star Wars, etc.) and hopes that Spielberg's film encourages others to make classy versions of genre classics - or better yet, bring forth movies based on untouched SF works. What we could use is a kind of Merchant-Ivory approach to classic genre tales.

The film has an edge to go with its save-the-family theme; it's genuinely scary. I think I wanna see it again, like, right away. That hasn't happened since I saw Crack in the World.

July 4, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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