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War of the Worlds (4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital)
Steven Spielberg's intelligent, exciting and even frightening 2005 re-think of the original H.G. Wells book seems to have been produced because of the timeliness of its war theme -- the Josh Friedman & David Koepp script makes numerous references to the idea of a technologically advanced society militarily occupying another country. The parallels with the then-hot war in Iraq were obvious.
Hollywood remakes of sci-fi/fantasy classics often feel unnecessary. The new War of the Worlds (no 'the') shows Spielberg doing what he does best, pumping new energy into an established genre. H.G. Wells' diary-like account of life under the heel of Martian invaders anticipated 20th century wars fought with terrible technological weapons. Spielberg ignores the gee-whiz, bigger explosions clichés and instead embraces the events and atmosphere of the 1898 book.
We begin in a New Jersey shipping yard. Divorced dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) resents being parked with his unhappy children Rachel and Robbie (Dakota Fanning & Justin Chatwin) while his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and her new husband go on vacation. Then an overwhelmingly powerful alien force attacks, and Ferrier is forced to take full responsibility for two kids who don't really trust him. Fleeing in a stolen car, they join a tide of humanity being swept before the onslaught of colossal walking tripods armed with unopposable heat rays. After narrowly surviving a number of close encounters with the conquerors, Ray and Rachel are separated from Robbie and hole up in a basement with an emotionally unstable survivalist, Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). They're surrounded by an invader encampment and must lay low while alien surveillance probes investigate their basement hideout.
Spielberg's War of the Worlds emphasizes the fear and confusion of being uninformed and helpless in the middle of a war. A full day after the first attacks, Ray Ferrier is still unaware that hundreds of alien fighting machines are sweeping the nation, not just the one he has seen. In other words, average American Ray is subjected to the terror routinely perpetrated on entire populations elsewhere in the world.
The Friedman / Koepp screenplay respects the '53 Pal version but takes most of its inspiration from H.G. Wells. In one thrilling encounter in the source novel, a fleeing channel ferryboat is cut off by a Martian fighting machine that wades into the offshore shallows. Before it can turn its heat ray on the ferry, the tripod is challenged by the most formidable Earth weapon of 1900, an iron dreadnaught. In the movie this channel ferryboat becomes a Hudson River Ferry. The episode is combined with another in which the narrator finds himself on a lonely road at night, caught between two war machines. Wells' ferry passengers escape thanks to the suicidal attack of the battleship, but not so Spielberg's helpless refugees, who are drowned, harvested for blood and driven to their deaths by the alien heat rays.
The unnerving new heat ray is an electronic zapper that freeze-dries victims with concentrated microwaves. Unlucky targets grimace in pain and then explode into powder, leaving their clothing flapping in the heat-draft. Ray Ferrier is thoroughly dusted with powdered humanity. It's pretty chilling, and conveniently bloodless. Because his show has not a single bloody corpse, Spielberg circumvents the censorship vigilance of the MPAA. Pretty slick trick, there.
The new Martian tripod fighting machines are so big that they tower into the sky. A new twist is that they first emerge from below ground, where they were buried for perhaps thousands of years. This ancient invasion idea reminds us of Nigel Kneale's brilliant Quatermass and the Pit. It also evokes the Deep Cover paranoia associated with the attack of 9/11/2001. The CGI animators have found a way around the physical problem of a tripod walk cycle. If their design has a weakness it's that the Martian machines seem to be made of sheet metal and jet turbine parts.
Some fans were disappointed when the movie didn't deliver a standard exhilarating battle sequence. The filmmakers instead opt to maintain his focus on the Ferriers' personal ordeal. The big battle mostly happens 'over the hill.' The writers repeatedly compare the alien invaders to an army of occupation. The insane survivalist Harlan Ogilvy harps on this issue, and Ray's son Robbie is introduced ignoring a school assignment on the French occupation of Algeria. Occupations never work, the film lectures, a debatable issue that depends on where one draws the line between aggressive occupation and colonial husbandry.
The book's narrator is almost buried alive when a Martian cylinder lands atop his hiding place, a wrecked house. The movie splits this scene in two. Ray's wife's house is partially wiped out when a jet plane (presumably shot down) crashes into it. Later, Ray and Rachel voluntarily hide out with Harlan Ogilvy, who cracks up and threatens to reveal their presence to the invaders. In the book, the unhinged companion is a terrified churchman. In both film versions, a metallic Martian tentacle that explores the hiding place becomes a remote spy probe.
Spielberg also dramatizes the book's alien 'Red Weeds' with which the Martians seek to re-form Earth for their own purposes. The fast-growing vines are filled with a fluid resembling blood. As in the book, these Martians are vampires that drink human blood. The tripod machines collect fresh victims in going-to-market baskets, similar to the robot-roundup scene in Artificial Intelligence A.I..
Although God is still mentioned in Morgan Freeman's bookend narration, the concluding tone is simple Thanksgiving instead of the divine intervention of the H.G. Wells book. Maybe the aliens will get the proper vaccinations before their next invasion. The germ deliverance of the original novel has been an unfortunate legacy for much of bad Sci-Fi, in which monster menaces are routinely vanquished through insultingly illogical means, like the salt water that dissolves those pesky Triffid monsters.
Spielberg's War of the Worlds isn't perfect. The Martians themselves are sketchy humanoid creatures, and not particularly interesting. The scenes with Tim Robbins going bonkers are a bit over- emphatic. But Steven Spielberg doesn't ruin things by going all soft and fuzzy with the story. This could have been a Feel-Good invasion where good old Dad rebuffs those nasty critters from space, so all can eat at McDonald's and play Goofy Golf.
All of the performances are very good, especially Dakota Fanning's impressively detailed Rachel. Fanning conjures a dozen different kinds of scared, from simple shock to exhausted desperation. And she convinces as a kid who knows that she can be calmed down by her favorite lullabye from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Good parents do what works. Happily, the movie is not a typical Tom Cruise vehicle. Yes, Ray Ferrier does dodge heat rays, tumbling cars and exploding buildings. We cheer his 'hand grenade up the alien wazoo' scene. But most of what Ray does is an exercise in frustration, as it would be for most of us. He spends most of the film running in terror and cowering like everybody else.
Some fans complained that the final scene, a reunion in Boston, was a Spielberg happy-happy dealbreaker. I disagree. War of the Worlds' growing mood of panic and terror place it far in the plus column. Ray, Rachel and Robbie survive because they're good at keeping their heads down and staying clear of the mass stampede around them. I remember hearing some say they wouldn't see the film because it was too close to their discomfort about 9/11. People like movies about horrible jeopardy less, when the people being victimized are too much like them. Even though Ray Ferrier is forced to kill in cold blood, the main message of this survival fantasy is that compassion and sticking together are essential for survival too. A great deal of blind luck doesn't hurt, either.
Paramount's 4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital of War of the Worlds is the expected impressive boost up to theater-grade presentation quality. The improvement is predictable but nonetheless pronounced. Compared to the original Blu-ray, the 4K UHD image is decidedly sharper, with much more resolution. It 'snaps' in focus. The added detail makes the film grain much more evident. Some might not care for that effect, and some may love it. The contrast indeed pops more in the 4K, and the colors become more realistic, less poster- like. But the contrast and above all the clarity and sharpness are what one notices first.
The film is encoded with Dolby Vision. One difference between Dolby Vision and the earlier HD10 is that Dolby Vision enables almost no 'fiddling' or readjustment of the various settings otherwise usually available for picture. It's mostly locked-in.
The audio is pretty incredible, with all of these low-frequency hums and vibrations used to give the alien machines added presence. The Blu-raw was already sensational in that respect, with a complicated mix, lots of separation, etc.
High-end 4K home setups with 80" screens will essentially enjoy a theater-quality experience. War of the Worlds seen theatrically seemed to have a slight granularity and texture added overall. I remember thinking at the time that Spielberg perhaps chose that slightly subdued look to affect a slightly less punchy, documentary-like look. Either that, or the granularity was added to make the live action better match the digital effects. On 4K UHD, the image does not look at all degraded -- but intentional and a good fit.
The separate Blu-ray included appears to be identical to Paramount's 2010 Blu-ray release. It contains the same extras, including the lengthy production docus by Laurent Bouzereau. The promo- style featurettes assure us that the production was a miracle of cooperation and harmony. The director's piece on his relationship with Wells' War of the Worlds was unexpected and welcome. Other specific featurettes cover the pre-visualization and design process behind the aliens and their machines. We learn that the cracks in the street under the bystanders at the first alien encounter were completely added in post-production. That should have been obvious, but I was surprised by it anyway. Great design and imagination haven't gone away -- not everything is accomplished by somebody sitting in front of a computer.
War of the Worlds
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Supplements: Many production and promotional featurettes, galleries, trailers, etc.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 24, 2020
Text (c) Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson