Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds – I am a big fan. I really enjoy that movie. I’d probably even put it on my list of 100 favorite films, which is a list that some other more revered Spielberg projects, like ET, the Extra-Terrestrial or even Schindler’s List, don’t make it onto.
Waaaiiit a minute – did I just say that War of the Worlds is better than ET? Better than Schindler’s List ?!?!? That’s it, I’m outta here…
Well, no, I didn’t say that, not exactly. I said I enjoyed War of the Worlds more. I’ve been drawn to watch it more than once, to even go out of my way to buy it. On purpose. I’m allowed to do that. We all are – to decide that we personally enjoy whatever we want to. You can, for example, say that Timothy Dalton is your favorite James Bond, or that Keannu Reeves is your favorite actor, or that the Chris O’Donnell remake The Bachelor better than Buster Keaton’s original film, Seven Chances. I may be absolutely mystified by your opinions (that’s what my rating system is based on, in part) but certainly, you are entitled to them.
It’s a bit harder to try to say what is the best at something. Who is the best actor, or which is the best film (or who is the best James Bond). We may think it, but to say it you need to be an authority, or to have some sort of assessment system that’s based on some sort of criteria that has got some sort of broad acceptance. Or otherwise, you need to be some sort of well-studied film critic, who is either well-respected or thick-skinned enough to just throw out terms like “Ten Best Films of the Year” even though possibly nobody else in the world agrees with you. Or otherwise you just gather your industry together and have an awards show.
So no, I didn’t say that War of the Worlds is the best Spielberg film (that, clearly, is either Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark). I just said it’s one of my favorites (one of, I’d say, about five). And I said that knowing full well that there are lots of people who don’t like that film, and who find my love for it baffling. I know that because they have told me. They think it’s ridiculous that the teenaged son is able to survive on his own and get back home ahead of his dad. They find it unbelievable that all the New Yorkers stand around and watch the ground crack and shake, waiting to get atomized before they start running away. They find it breaks their suspension of disbelief to see main characters drive away in a car from a place that a plane has just crashed onto. And some people just can’t deal with Tom Cruise in anything.
Others, I believe, can’t deal with the ending where (spoilers, I guess) the aliens are defeated not by man’s ingenuity or determination, but by their failure to account for earth’s native-born viruses and bacteria. But hey, you’ll have to take that one up with H.G. Wells himself…
One of the movie’s biggest critics that I know is my brother, who has one of the more insightful objections that I’ve ever heard. He points out the absurdity of the fact that the aliens have apparently buried their tripod walking machines thousands of years ago which they then send themselves down to via lightning bolts to inhabit, operate, and wreak their destruction from. My brother works in a technical field – basically helping professional audio equipment to work in the way that it’s supposed to. And for him, the idea that after thousands of years, the machines that were buried underground still work and are still compatible with the alien’s current-day technology was more than he could handle. I can barely get stuff that’s five years old to talk to something made today, he’ll say (more or less). Are you telling me that stuff we made 20,000 years ago is still going to work? Come on!
(His other objection is that he’s incredulous at the idea that Tom Cruise could beat Tim Robbins in a fight, noting the differences in the two men’s respective size. That one hadn’t occurred to me either).
For me, the biggest hiccup in the movie is just accepting that the Boston suburb that everyone winds up in at the end seems to be just fine and dandy in spite of all the trauma that the world had been experiencing. Actually, upon reflection it is plausible that Miranda Otto and her family just stayed indoors during everything, and that their particular block didn’t get destroyed. But still, if they had just re-set that scene in cabin in the woods, it probably wouldn’t have been a stumbling block for me.
But still, none of that goes into what I like about the film. I like the overall story of Ray, Tom Cruise’s character – a guy who is trying to do what he needs to to fulfill basic family responsibilities, but overall is unable to move beyond his own selfishness. This character suddenly is thrust with the rest of the world into terrible and extraordinary situation, and must plumb his own depths to discover what lengths he’s willing to go to in order to keep his kids alive. That becomes enough of a narrative link to pull together the otherwise disjointed sequences and gives them a meaning beyond simply, “People trying to survive.”
And what a set of sequences they are! This is the thing that really sells me on the film. I mean, maybe people would run away from those cracks that are appearing in the ground before the alien death machine turns up, but then again…maybe they wouldn’t. I buy that the mixture of dread and curiosity that those people are experiencing is enough to keep their feet planted to the ground. As a member of the audience, I was feeling exactly the same thing that they were, thanks to some amazing direction and editing.
Then there’s that tense and gripping scene with the car and the gun, when Ray loses both. He comes within a hair’s breadth of losing his family and his life, not to the aliens, but to the panic-stricken and desperate masses of beleaguered humans. It’s a compelling and believable consequence of the devastation they are all experiencing.
And there’s also my personal highlight, which is the extended sequence with Tim Robbins, who at first seems like a source of refuge, but eventually is revealed to be an insane liability. I saw this movie on a plane with all of the limitations that such a viewing experience has, and yet was utterly gripped as the two men confront each other while they simultaneously try to avoid being sighted by a big metallic tentacle. When that tentacle withdraws and is replaced by an actual alien, I felt like my heart wasn’t beating anymore.
All the way through all this, Steven Spielberg does his thing. We don’t go deep with characters, but we relate to them well enough and they become our window into a series of events that are horrible in itself, but fascinating to experience vicariously. Spielberg builds tension like the film making maestro that he is (come on, even if you don’t like all his movies, you’ve got to acknowledge that), where he keeps you in suspense about the monster or the shark or whatever, but when it’s time to finally show you the money, he brings it into the light, clear as day.
In the end, it’s Spielberg’s treatment of those individual sequences of terror, struggle, and survival that wins me over to this film, combined with streamlined, no-frills narrative framework of an ordinary guy who learns to give everything for the people who should have been most important all along.