War of the Worlds Review
By Joe Lozito
There's a moment in Steven Spielberg's 1997 dinosaur sequel "Lost World: Jurassic Park" which has always stuck with me. The maverick big game hunter played by Pete Postlethwaite is nonchalantly leading a caravan of jeeps to round up various cloned dinosaurs. The ease with which the character hunts down the animals and scoops them up with zip-lines brings to mind Mr. Spielberg's recent directorial method.
Here's the man who is more or less credited with inventing the summer blockbuster with "Jaws" in 1975. He then enjoyed an almost unequalled string of success with (ignoring "1941") "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (and its sequels) and "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial." However, recently, perhaps beginning with the original "Jurassic Park" in 1993, Mr. Spielberg's films have changed. He used to say that he makes movies that he used to like as a child. Now it's possible he's making movies that he knows the audience will like. He's not selling out necessarily because he is still a master of filmmaking, but it's possible that he's gotten complacent in his old age. Rather than take a chance on an ending or plot point that might offend a few audience members, he settles for the easy out. He's just leading the caravan, rounding up the summer blockbuster dollars.
"War of the Worlds" is a perfect example of this trend. Mr. Spielberg's take on the H.G. Wells classic - already adapted twice before - is a fine, competent film with very little to recommend it. The characters, a failed father (Tom Cruise, wearing his blue collar on his sleeve), his rebellious teenage son (Justin Chatwin, channeling a young Mr. Cruise) and his precocious daughter (Dakota Fanning, filling Drew Barrymore's shoes from "E.T.") have all been done to better effect in other films. The plot which revolves around an alien assault on the entire planet (I'm not sure why it's called "War of the Worlds" since humans can't do much to fight these things) provides the standard explosions and close-calls.
The efficient script by David Koepp ("Spider-man", "Panic Room") and Josh Friedman ("Chain Reaction") delivers the requisite thrills but holds up to precious little scrutiny. Why, for example, did the writers choose to have the alien war machines (called "tripods") already existing underground on Earth? How is it possible that hundreds of years of excavation have never uncovered even one of the many thousands necessary for an invasion force of the size shown in the film? It is also never made clear what the aliens want and why they're invading in the first place. Worst of the all, the aliens themselves, when they're finally revealed, are jaw-droppingly disappointing.
"War of the Worlds" is nothing more than a popcorn movie, but it's not a particularly satisfying one. Everyone involved has done better work. Mr. Spielberg has been very vocal about the fact that he made this film very quickly using digital techniques. For once, his alacrity shows. There's a wonderful moment in which the characters are trying to make sense of everything that's happened while driving in the only working car in town. Mr. Spielberg films the scene in a continuous sweeping 360 degree shot around the vehicle. This sequence alone is a wonder of spirited, inventive filmmaking. Aside from that, though, the film's special effects are less than special, the creature and tripod designs are derivative, the climactic scenes unravel with little momentum and the ending is nearly a slap in the face to everything that came before. Just when it seemed like Mr. Spielberg might be maturing into a filmmaker with some much-needed cynicism, you realize he's still just out there rounding up the dollars.