War Of The Worlds

4 stars


3rd July 2005

I was fully prepared for invasion. Over the last few nights, the sky outside my bedroom window has been lit up by otherworldly forces, raining down thunder and lightning like the Armageddon is just around the corner. Not only that, but the alien entity known as 'Tom Cruise' has begun his slow and steady assault on my television screen, screaming and waving his arms around like a hyperactive kid on countless chat shows (for someone who's vehemently anti-drugs, he sure could use a heroic dose of Ritalin right now). And with all of George Bush Jr's jollies away on his Arabian holiday, the idea of an unwanted foreign invasion isn't exactly an alien prospect right now. I was ready for mankind's demise. I was ready to see America owned by lanky extraterrestrials. I was ready for Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

But no matter how desperate I was for some large-scale destruction and inter-planetary civil war, my bloodlust and savagery were never quite sated. What Spielberg has done with his version of H.G. Wells' classic novel, as he is prone to do, is concentrate on the human element - believe it or not, he almost underplays the alien invasion as it plays second fiddle to the story of Cruise's Ray Ferrier and his relationship with his kids. Don't get me wrong, I was in no mood for more cigar-chomping heroics a la Independence Day, but because all of the action is viewed through the protagonist's eyes, it's all running away and hiding and being scared. It's certainly admirable of Spielberg to take this slant on the most famous of stories, but for a big summer blockbuster, sometimes you just can't hold back - for example, in one scene we see Ray desperately trying to restrain his son on one side of a hill, while on the other side, the mother of all battles between the Army and the Tripods rages unseen. A scene like that had the potential to be utterly jaw dropping, but as it is Spielberg is simply happy to tease and leave you gasping for more. Admirable then, but perhaps not entirely justified.

What Senor Spielbergo does achieve is in creating a genuine sense of terror, helped in part by some handy post 9/11 imagery. The impending sense of dread when the first tripod rises slowly from underground is palpable, the cracks in the tarmac sending cars flying and splitting buildings in half before the mighty machine breaks cover and towers over the city. They're quite exquisite creations too; the spindly legs and tendrils remain, the crab-like head spitting out laser fire with a teeth-rattling sonic blast - they certainly don't disappoint in the brown pants stakes. As the intergalactic Robin Reliants unleash their arsenal on the unsuspecting crowds, the puny humans simply disappear in a puff of dust, with the survivors clouded with their remains as they flee in terror. It's a none-too-subtle nod towards the Twin Towers attack, but it hits where it hurts. When the beasties within are finally revealed (something the director thankfully doesn't hold back on) they're appropriately sinister, if perhaps a little rusty in the hearing department.

When the Berg isn't too busy hammering home the point that Ray is a bad father and his kids don't respect him, he still has time to include some fantastic set pieces. The afore-mentioned opening assault is expertly handled (if a little restrained, due to being shot from ground level), you've no doubt seen the Freeway get ripped to shit and the attack on the Hudson ferry is a wonderful example of just how scary these three-legged jerks can be when they get angry. Unfortunately, they're few and far between. One scene, where Ray and his daughter are holed up in a basement with Tim Robbins' conspiracy nut Ogilvy, is almost a carbon copy of the 'Raptors in kitchen' scene from Jurassic Park, only instead of a dinosaur searching for the heroes, it's a probing alien tentacle that looks like Max from Flight of the Navigator. Spielberg hasn't lost his unique visual style however, with dozens of superb little touches like the clothes of the recently deceased floating eerily down to earth and a ghastly raft of corpses bobbing downstream. Although it's completely surplus to requirements, watching Spielberg guide his roving camera above and alongside Ray's car on the freeway as it weaves in and out of stationary traffic is an absolute joy to behold.

Perhaps a life of watching famous landmarks being desecrated in rubbish disaster movies has dulled my expectations of what a big-time picture like this should deliver. If it was all explosions and no acting I would have been livid, as it is I'm just slightly miffed that Spielberg didn't cut loose a little more. It's not much of an argument really, and apart from a few minor plot holes and grumbles - for a War of the Worlds, it didn't really feel like a global assault - it's an entirely satisfying movie, rich in visual splendour and well constructed from the start. Whether or not you'll appreciate the ending depends on your prior knowledge of the story, or quite how much you'd invested in seeing a gung-ho action movie, but it's a fitting conclusion to an exciting adaptation. Above all else, it's refreshing just to see Spielberg having some fun again, and there are few directors that are as polished and as enjoyable to watch in full flow as the bearded one. Ali

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