In the first of a new series of features for ORWAV we take a look back at films that are often forgotten or dismissed, or else missed out on the acclaim and box office they deserved. In short, they deserve a second chance…
In 1993 Steven Spielberg showcased the immensity of his talent and range with the double hit of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List; the former a sci-fi spectacular, the latter a harrowing look at a moment in history. In 2005, the director again released a duo of dichotomous releases; the sci-fi spectacular War of the Worlds and Munich, a harrowing look at a devastating moment in history. Munich remains a little-seen masterpiece, while War of the Worlds became a box-office behemoth and the fourth-highest grossing film of the year behind installments of Harry Potter, Star Wars and Narnia. Despite this, the film today is regularly ignored or derided – but it deserves neither.
Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was the second American cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic turn-of-the-century novel about Martian invaders in giant robotic tripods (think three-legged jaegars that bring the ‘brahms’ long before Inception) attempting to colonise earth before being brought down by micro-bacteria alien to their… alien bodies. The first was the 1953 movie of the same name, which relocated the novel’s English setting to 1950s California. Spielberg similarly contemporised the film to post-9/11 New York, but some critics complained about the repeated Americanisation of the source novel. Such complaints only served to reveal the ignorance of such commenters, because though set in England, Wells’ text is a mine for social commentary applicable to many nations. Issues of colonialism, class, religion and industrialisation have all been read into the text and various adaptions have updated these to the specificities of their time. The 1953 version regarded the Martian invasion and the Red Weed they spread across the earth as an allegory for Communist invasion, while Spielberg’s film is a fascinating exploration of post-9/11 fear and paranoia.
In an update of the novel’s introduction, Spielberg’s film begins with the narration:
No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world.
One could easily read the references to ‘we’ and ‘men’ as ‘America’, commenting on the nation’s confidence in its growing economic empire and military superiority entering the new millennium. However, 9/11 shocked and humbled the country, and the aftershocks of the event abound in Spielberg’s film. As the Martian attack begins, a man attempts to video the destruction on his camcorder as people run down the street exploding into clouds of ashen-grey dust. Characters ask if the attacks are caused by terrorists and, as with the televised images of 9/11, at one point in the film a plane crash is literally brought into the American home. The Martians are an eternal cipher: for each adaptation they encapsulate the fear of the society (re)telling the tale.
But the timeliness of the metaphorical elements does not limit Spielberg’s artistry. He explores an array of deceptively simple tracking shots that are laden with sight gags, multiple planes of action, spectacle and kinetic energy. Even a simple in-car conversation as the characters race down a freeway is revealed to be an extended single shot sequence where the camera assumes a multitude of positions over 360 degrees. He also creates some immensely striking and memorable visuals, including masses of corpses floating downriver, tripods cresting hilltops amidst flames and searchlights, and the clothes of incinerated people cascading like snowflakes through the branches of a moonlit forest. Spielberg and his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski deliver this imagery with the look of a grainy, 1970s disaster epic that also recalls Spielberg’s sci-fi classics Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: a dark conclusion to his alien trilogy.
The film also features a stunning performance from Cruise. His character, Ray, resembles a figure from a Bruce Springsteen song: a working-class dockyard employee from Brooklyn whose pride and joy is his American muscle car. A divorced parent (recalling the absence of the protagonist’s wife in Wells’ original), Ray is charged with watching over his son (Justin Chatwin) and daughter (Dakota Fanning) when the war starts. Ray’s ineptitude as a parent is constantly revealed (“I have a peanut allergy.” “Since when?” “Birth.”), yet gives emotional weight to scenes such as when, bleary-eyed, he sings The Beach Boys’ ‘Little Deuce Coup’ to calm his traumatised daughter because he doesn’t know any lullabies.
The film isn’t flawless, suffering from the same structural problems as its source: the first half of the film (The Coming of the Martians) is resplendent with spectacle and thrills, while the second half (The Earth Under the Martians) becomes almost theatrical as Ray, his daughter and Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) are trapped in a basement. The stars and script sparkle and Spielberg ratchets up the tension with superb use of the set’s spatial layout, but at times you pine for the first half’s grandeur. Likewise, before the Martians succumb to a cosmic case of man-flu, the script gives Cruise a contrived hero-moment that undercuts the established realism of the rest of the film.
Nevertheless, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a visual treat and an intelligent contemporary adaptation of the source material. While this Spielberg sci-fi spectacular may not be as fun as its 1993 equivalent, the drama and horror never become oppressive thanks to beautifully observed characterisation and dialogue, and the thrills and tension are as effective as anything Spielberg has put on screen.