I’ll say this: I can’t remember being as flat-out scared in a movie theatre auditorium as I was when watching Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”. The movie blazes out of the gate and runs hellbent across the countryside, scorching the earth with its downright terrifying vision of a full-scale alien invasion. But unfortunately, I haven’t been as flat-out dissatisfied with a film in almost as long a time. Yes, the movie stays true to its source material, almost to a fault: when the inevitable and decidedly anticlimactic conclusion arrives, it is a sad denoument to the rousing 100 minutes that preceded it, and feels weak, almost even unfinished. They say that some believe the world will end “not with a bang, but with a whimper”, and that’s alright, I guess — but this film is proof that summer action films don’t benefit from a lackluster finale.
The vast majority of this movie is simply as good as it gets. The story begins in Bayonne, New Jersey (as any self-respecting apocalypse should), where “Johnny Six-Pack” Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise — and yes, he pulls off working class quite well) is already late getting home to receive his kids for their designated weekend with Dad. His ex (Miranda Otto) and her husband have a thin, friendly patience with Ray’s free-wheeling ways — more patience, in fact, than his kids, who openly regard him as the middle-aged loser that he actually is. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is clearly his intellectual superior (despite displaying some early psychological issues that will likely blossom in her teens) and his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) definitely has some unresolved beef with his pops for being a bit of a deadbeat, so the stage is set for a supremely uncomfortable weekend — and of course, a tearful reconciliation of truly Spielbergian proportions.
As the three bicker and posture in Johnny’s dumpy little house under the bridge to Manhattan (this includes his son’s stealing his car and his daughter’s having the gall to order hummus for dinner), something strange is brewing… literally. A series of lightning storms that are clearly not natural sweep the area, and Ray goes to investigate. Within 20 minutes enormous machines have burst out from beneath the streets, the entire town is rubble, and Ray and his kids are in the only working automobile in the Northeast, bound for Mom’s house in the suburbs. Will they make it up to Boston to reunite with their family? Will the giant alien invaders destroy the world before they make it past Blauvelt? Or will the rapidly panicking (and more rapidly dwindling) remaining human population prove to be more of a threat than the aliens themselves?
Honestly, if you’ve read the book or seen the original film, you know what the answer is. And I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, let me say this: this movie scared the pants off me. From the moment the lightning storms scare Tom and Dakota under their kitchen table, I was hooked. Hushed, appendage-tingling anticipation is something that no one can do better than Spielberg when he’s on his game (think of the T-Rex attack in “Jurassic Park”, or the scenes with little Ben and his mother in “Close Encounters”), and here the slowly mounting dread as the attack begins to take shape is masterfully done.
As the form and intention of the attackers becomes more apparent, Ray and his family are forced through more horrifying predicaments, including a nightmarish ferry ride, a standoff with a murderous mob, and a respite in a cellar with an increasingly creepy Tim Robbins, who thinks that Ray’s tactic of running from the threat rather than staying to face it is cowardly and ineffective (it’s also telling that his character has nothing left to lose, while Ray has his kids to think of). As Ray’s family crawls its way toward Boston, it’s clear that Spielberg isn’t simply exploring the possible impact of a nifty sci-fi alien invasion here – this is a full-on war film, and these experiences are no different in the end than what refugees in any war-torn country go through. The panic, desperation, and fury are intensely palpable – at any given moment, all could be lost, and all hope could be abandoned. In that way, this is more “Saving Private Ryan” than “E.T.”, as Speilberg has given us yet another hellish vision of what war does to families, cities, and individuals. Do not go in expecting Speak-N-Spells and glowing fingers.
This dark, deeply disturbing vision is buoyed by some fantastically harrowing action sequences and jaw-dropping effects, most of which feature the gargantuan Tripod machines vaporizing helpless citizens from above or plucking people out of midair for some insidious purpose. Once Ray and his family start running, they really don’t stop – the pace of the action is near-excruciating, and when Ray and daughter Rachel hide out in the cellar with Ogilvy (Robbins), even this welcome bit of rest turns sour quickly, leading to one of the most disturbing moments of the film. What Spielberg is breaking down here is: How far do the lines between right and wrong slide when you have your family to defend, or your country? Is it more noble to stand your ground or to find a safe haven for the weak? Or more simpy, what is the value of a single human life? Spielberg lets each of these questions play out deliberately, and with the help of Cruise’s impressively grounded performance, the moments of struggle resonate beautifully amid the chaos. It’s both intensely epic and intensely personal – a near-impossible balancing act that Spielberg executes brilliantly for the first 100 minutes.
However, the climax (or rather, the lack of climax) sadly undermines this groundwork enormously, to the point where the adrenaline rush gives way to a mild hangover during the end credits. I won’t give anything away, but the conclusion is just not nearly cinematic enough for a film that has been non-stop action and emotion from the time it hit the ground. Now, in the novel and in the 1953 version, which are sci-fi dramas rather than action films, the abrupt and somewhat academic ending works just fine – within the arc of a drama, it’s not a jolt to the system to be set down gently in the last act. But when the film was reconceived as an action movie, I’m surprised there wasn’t more consideration given to the fact that the ending feels like finishing a marathon by running straight into a wall. Sure, there is an added bit of business after the cellar scenes that tries to approximate an action climax, but it simply doesn’t work, and the result is a sinking feeling not unlike the kind you’d get as a child when you’d realize how a birthday party magician was doing his tricks.
Despite the weak ending, there’s lots of good stuff to be had here, both technically (the cinematography is simply stunning, as are the visual effects) and in terms of the narrative (the characters are interesting and believable, and the trajectory of the action will put butterflies in your stomach like the best thrill-rides). In the end, “War of the Worlds” avoids being a fluffy video-game-in-the-making by focusing squarely on the plights of its characters. Had it not been saddled with a detached, existential resolution that all but undermined the actions of our heroes, it might have been the greatest sci-fi action film ever made. As it is, it’s a flawed but very entertaining piece of work.