Illegal aliens

BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - July 1, 2005 - 12:00am
War of the Worlds is, many times, hardly engaging, cold and detached from an audience in confused awe so terrified to question the cinematic authority of Steven Spielberg. He is, of course, the biggest filmmaker of modern cinema, and perhaps rightfully so. But by diluting the searing political allegory of H.G. Wells’ landmark 1898 novel for the sake of the intimacy and resultantly unavoidable sentimentality of familial human drama, Spielberg paints a far different yet not necessarily inferior present-day adaptation on Hollywood celluloid. Wells’ radically avant-garde ideals are loosely used and disposed of in varying amounts; it’s hard not to applaud Spielberg’s astonishing orchestrations of showmanship, yet impossible to overlook the film’s many palpably incohesive moments.

By intending such a conceit as the film only showing what Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) sees, War of the Worlds pans out as both constricting and frustrating, and thrilling and urgent – almost always separately, though at times simultaneously. Ray is a proposed Everyman, a pathetic divorcé in blue-collar New Jersey; and his two kids (Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning, who has played daughter to Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, and now Tom Cruise) are over for the weekend. When the alien attacks start, however, the audience sees this through his sole point-of-view: no blowing up of the White House, no collapse of the Eiffel Tower. This is thoroughly refreshing and faintly exasperating, David Koepp’s screenplay claustrophobic in narrative yet expansive in visual scale. I was at first completely cynical when I learned Spielberg would be trying the oft-hackneyed "intimate drama in a big tent-pole picture"; he, nevertheless, is able to pull it off to a certain extent, one that is not used to his own narrative restrictions. War of the Worlds has the ability and the potential to be a beautiful and transcendent fable, yet overindulges in the excesses of its own dramatic possibilities.

Though Cruise, who was amazing in last year’s Collateral, is exhaustively unlikable despite the discounting of his wildly tedious holier-than-thou off-screen antics, Fanning and Chatwin are able to carry a film of this magnitude in basically a lead cast of three. She’s the wiser-beyond-her-years Rachel, and Fanning again proving how freakishly talented she is; he’s the brooding newcomer (also in this year’s Sundance hit The Chumscrubber) and gives the rebellious-turned-heroic performance Cruise fails to deliver.

Spielberg’s use of handheld cameras proves awkward and without the effortlessness Paul Greengrass exemplified in The Bourne Supremacy or even he himself in Saving Private Ryan. Albeit breathtaking visual effects and astonishing set pieces, Koepp’s screenplay forces a potent unevenness that feels slapdash and rushed. Such incoherence, however, is lost upon the bleakest, most human sequences, superior to but still reminiscent of ones from past disaster films this side of Roland Emmerich that reveal War of the Worlds as a disarmingly delicate portrait of fundamental human survival. With his latest project, Spielberg makes allusions to the whimsy of his Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the worldly humanity of Schindler’s List, resulting in a sum that is less an homage than a mainstream picture simply set to entertain. He has nothing much significant or relevant to say despite the blatant 9/11 references, rendered as set pieces rather than sentiment.

War of the Worlds
is far from Spielberg’s best, a Universal Studios theme park ride not disappointing because of mediocrity but because of the maddening idea of how astounding it could have turned out to be. It is still the best alien film in years with its all-too-brief moments of sheer cinematic brilliance. But after getting deliriously high on the red weed, the film comes crashing down in all its prosaic convenience and unabashed contrivance, so fast that by the time the credits roll, you still wouldn’t have established what hit you in an ending so terribly abrupt literary faithfulness, in this case, should have been disregarded.

Bottom Line: War of the Worlds can be beautiful, frustrating, thrilling and tedious at different occasions, yet ultimately falls victim to stenciled contrivances so apparent all its narrative flaws are exhumed.

Grade: B-
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