By Marc S. Sanders
There’s a harsh reality to science fiction in the 21st century. When the aliens arrive on Earth, a little girl will ask her dad “What is it? Is it terrorists?” Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds covered that territory when it was released four brisk years after 9/11. All these years later and there’s still some legitimacy to that sadly reasonable question. I find it interesting that one of the most pioneering novels in sci fi was published just ahead of the twentieth century paving the way for endless approaches to alien arrivals and attacks on Earth. When Spielberg approaches it on his third try, the trope may have been done to death, but now the reality of the response is updated and all too real, and brutally disturbing.
Tom Cruise is the lead in this adaptation, and he is arguably in the most vulnerable role of his career. He plays a storage bin dock loader, only regarded as a half caring deadbeat and divorced dad to his teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning). After his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) drops the kids off for the weekend, there’s an uncomfortable game of catch in the backyard followed by the beginning of the mayhem. What appears like a lightning storm evolves into dead batteries and no electricity along with odd wind currents and hammering echoes. When the people all around the main characters in their New York neighborhood get vaporized, then naturally their first instinct is to think it’s terrorists. In today’s science fiction, terrorists are real and aliens are not.
Later, once the extra terrestrials (not the friendly kind who consume Reece’s pieces) have viciously introduced themselves, Spielberg’s film resorts to demonstrating mass exodus of the people of Earth. Military units advise folks to “keep movin’.” When the attacks happen, people scatter in different directions. When a ferry is leaving the mainland, helpless folks rush for the dock, desperately climbing over the gates and leaving loved ones behind. Spielberg hasn’t forgotten about the unlawful occupations from world history. He simply applies it to a Tom Cruise action piece.
Tim Robbins shows up as a crazed man hiding in a farmhouse basement with a shotgun ready to begin a one-man revolution. Cruise tries to contain the hysteria. A scene like this could have had Nazis or aliens circumventing on the floor above, as the central characters remain as quiet as the Jews used to do in the basement below. The parallels are eerily the same.
Still, I respect the reality of the piece. For one thing, much of the film, scripted by Josh Friedman and David Koepp is pulled right from H.G. Wells’ pages, including the nice and tidy ending that eventually arrives. Don’t knock it. That’ how Wells wrote the story to begin with. Spielberg and crew don’t invent their own new image of the invaders. They are still the tall three-legged tripods towering over the people of Earth and blasting them with their “heat rays.” My favorite touch of this film is using Morgan Freeman’s vocals as the bookended narrator reciting Wells’ novel text, nearly word for word. It’s a welcome salute to the memorable radio show that Orson Welles lent to the story decades before.
I consider this adaptation of War Of The Worlds to be an observational picture or a reactionary film. Cruise is not super skilled with fighting techniques and weapons handling. All he can do is watch and react. He’s an everyman here, which is actually quite unusual for him when you gloss over his resume. This is not Maverick or Ethan Hunt: Superspy. His purpose is to watch and return his kids to their mother in Boston, assuming she is still alive. The success of the mission here only depends on getting the kids back to mom.
Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin go against the grain of so many other Spielberg kid characters. They are not intuitive or inventive. Especially for Fanning’s character, she is just a scared little girl. Not a Goonie and not like Gertie, who is scared for the sake of humor with precocious one liners. If aliens were attacking the Earth, this is how my kid would react.
Once it is established that this movie is a Spielberg running man film, then you may be grateful for the realistic mentality of the story’s community. You’ll also appreciate the amazing set pieces accompanied by John Williams’ original score that plays like a drive-in monster movie or a Twilight Zone episode. The aftermath of a plane crash on a Jersey suburban neighborhood is very convincing. A runaway train set ablaze intrudes upon the cast with great surprise. A cracked piece of concrete that gets swallowed up below only to immediately vomit a tripod in the air for instant attack is eye popping.
War Of The Worlds is a well-crafted film, and the thought was definitely invested in its approach ahead of making it. Yet, I won’t say it’s fun escapism. It’s a reminder of the unrelenting realities we live in now. Sadly, it’s not reaching to say that maybe we live in a time where it is in fact every person for themselves. Even Cruise’s son insists on going off on his own, abandoning both him and his sister with nary a care at all. Unlike Close Encounters or E.T., there’s not much to laugh or grin at in this Spielberg alien film.
The 2005 adaptation of War Of The Worlds is certainly loyal to H.G. Wells. It may be realistic in the human nature of its science fiction, but in the end, it is also a very bleak film. There’s much to marvel at, but once the movie is over, as my colleague Miguel and I often recommend to one another, it’ll likely be best that you get outside and bathe in the warm sun under a blue sky, roll around in the grass with your dog, and taste an apple for the first time all over again. It’s about all we have left to embrace what little is left of our sanity.