War of the Worlds
(SPOILERS) Spielberg’s adaptation of HG Wells’ best-known work struck me as a lazy move at that the time. As slickly made as it undeniably was, it left me resoundingly underwhelmed. Shorn of period accoutrements, the director’s latest SF extravaganza was revealed as a thin, pedestrian wallow in grim-dark. But it seemed to strike a chord, earning a raft of strong critical notices and an appreciative audience response; as a result, it would be the penultimate time the Beard scored a place in the annual worldwide box office Top 10. How does War of the Worlds’ depiction of nationwide devastation carry now, in an environment of strategically advancing global devastation? Still not so hot, or resonant. Although, a deus ex machina of the order envisioned by Wells and unimaginatively transposed by David Koepp and Josh Friedman wouldn’t go amiss in the real world.
This deus ex machina, as narrated by an exclusively paycheque-inspired Morgan Freeman, advises that the Martians, nay plain aliens in this iteration, have no resistance to Earth microbes. Lest you instantly infer that means “viruses”, however, Wells had it that they were “slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared”. Quite how these bacteria overran the Martian systems, well… “there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow”.
That’s some fairly wild invention there for sure, for if their systems have no bacteria, how then do they function? Further still, if Martian systems function successfully without the need for bacteria, why on earth (or Mars) should bacteria represent an inimical force? It rather suggests they exist in an artificially sterile environment. Maybe they do, in which case they were surely aware of this fact, being the kind of science-and-technology whizzes who could build solar-system-traversing space craft, so were surely rather foolhardy not to test Earth’s atmosphere before arriving. Anyone would think they were as unforgivably stupid as the humans in Alien Covenant.
I suppose then, that you could argue the War of the Worlds resolution is nonsense in the same way the plandemic is nonsense. The difference being that the former provides for a happy ending. A deadly reaction to the environment conveniently does for the Martians, but a magic wand waving away the dark instigators of global euthanasia is far from reach.
Robbie: What is it? Is it terrorists?
Ray: These came from someplace else.
Robbie: What do you mean? Like Europe?
Ray: No, Robbie, not like Europe!
At the time, there was much in the way of 9/11 analogies – no, not in the sense that the Martians didn’t actually land at all – with comparisons made between the machines lying dormant beneath the ground. You know, like sleeper cells. Yeah, it’s desperately weak, isn’t it? When man-child dad Ray (Cruise) attempts to drive his semi-estranged kids Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) to safety in the face of disintegrating death rays, Rachel asks “Is it the terrorists?” As was more than evident by this point in his career, it’s the kind of thing that passes for thematic depth with the Berg.
Motivations are generally suspect throughout. It’s easy to forget that most people accepted – and still do accept – the official 9/11 story entirely credulously. Whether that viewpoint extends to the not so great or good of Hollywood is moot, but what isn’t is that, if there’s a buck to be made from it, they’ll make it. Well, barring Eastwood, perhaps not in furnishing us with gung-ho action movies set in Iraq – most handwringing on the War on Terror conspicuously attracted no audiences – but transpose that content to another genre, spruced up with readily-guilt-free-killable aliens, and audiences might swallow the bitter pill (although, in Battle: LA’s case, not so much). In this context, Robbie is desperate to “join up” and give the foreign, I mean alien, devils what for, all common sense deserting him. Ray has to dispose of the coward/collaborator substitute (Tim Robbins’ Neil Young lookalike Ogilvy) so as not to be given away. And our brave lads save us eventually… well, no actually, see above, they don’t need to. But the Berg is fully behind them, just like on Omaha Beach.
War of the Worlds makes for something of a capper to the Berg’s “dark SF” trilogy (after A.I. and Minority Report). All three feature children under threat of predation and encountering – or implied to encounter – considerable suffering, none more so than Rachel here. She’s continually being exposed to death and destruction, almost as if this were some form of MKUltra initiation (at one point, she’s even blindfolded, for her own good). The moral is that maximum trauma brings a family closer together, or imprints them. It certainly does Ray the world of good, outgrowing his petulant ways and earning his children’s respect in the process. Even Robbie survives – bafflingly, but no more so than aliens succumbing to Earth microbes – so all is good.
As much as this is rather distasteful, it’s matched by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s dour, desolate conceptualisation of the movie. Such an approach might have worked had the opening been bright, colourful and welcoming, the world turning on its head after the aliens arrive. Unfortunately, however, that’s the way Kamiński shoots everything (hence his being particularly unsuited to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Although, Spielberg himself was unsuited to that one. Along with pretty much everyone else involved).
Kamiński’s has been pretty much the preferred tone of Hollywood movies for the past two decades. There was a time, pre-Schindler’s List and its concomitant “maturity” (read: trying to fill shoes he lacked the intellectual capacity for), that the Berg made movies with interesting and evocative visual palettes. Perhaps the change reflects his outlook, the sense that all those youthful confections, where he’d throw highly inappropriate adult references into kid-populated movies like E.T. and The Goonies, not to mention the various unedifying stories that have circulated over the years, were beginning to catch up with him.
Whatever the reason, at least the similar grim and disaster-struck Cloverfield a few years later had a distinctive take. War of the Worlds only ever feels like reheated leftovers, its modern twist on the Wells formula – a much better TV show had already gone that route in the 1980s – never provoking enough interest to sustain it. There’s no rise and fall to the narrative, no subtlety or nuance to developments; instead, we have little more than a protracted chase/destruction derby. In a sense, Spielberg finally got to make his Dark Skies, but it’s by way of a story that has long-since been inspirationally redundant.
Sure, the Beard summons some virtuoso moments: the use of the mirror in the basement; Ray in an upside-down car, refocussing on Rachel through its broken windscreen. But there’s also much that is rote. Nasty stuff like Martians feeding on humans, or tacky elements like the overtly CGI aliens. Or the crashed plane outside the house, which has amenably left room for Ray to drive away unobstructed. In general, War of the Worlds makes you pine for the glory days of Tim Burton’s patchy Mars Attacks!
It was during the publicity for War of the Worlds that Tom jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch. It seems his behaviour and his staunch convictions had a cumulatively disenchanting effect on the Berg and Mrs the Berg, such that the uncomprehending Tom is now a persona non grata with both. But still making spectacles of himself in other ways, issuing meltdown directives to his M:I crew. Meanwhile, half of Hollywood has been executed or languishes in Guantanamo Bay… Oh yeah, that didn’t happen. Still, I don’t think Spielberg will suddenly be climbing back aboard Indy V. And as for his autobiographical nostalgia vehicle... War of the Worlds finds him actually bothering, despite the material. In Indy IV, only a couple of years, later he couldn’t disguise not giving a toss. It’s been all downhill for him since.