War of the Worlds

written by David Keopp and Josh Friedman

directed by Steven Spielberg

starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins


review by Stephen Notley

I hoped to be horrified by War of the Worlds and I wasn't. I was terrified, cringing this way and that in my chair at nightmarish destruction. I was drawn in, intrigued by a guy whose devil-may-care insouciance is found seriously wanting once shit hits fan. I was impressed, left gawking at virtuoso filmmaking. But, I wasn't horrifed. Horrifying would've been if we'd seen the tripods grabbing people, stripping them naked, stuffing them into transluscent sacs, melting them and then spitting them out again over the crowd in long ropy strands of red weed. That doesn't happen in this movie, unlike in the nightmare I had two weeks before seeing it.

But perhaps horror is too much to ask; terror will have to do. And it is terrifying, once the introduction of Tom Cruise and his family is settled and the tripods are free to erupt in one of the most nerve-rattling sequences since, well, the D-Day attack in Saving Private Ryan. Unlike the typical giant monster movie that shows the giant monsters from their perspective, this one shows them from our perspective, us running around antlike as they jut up from the horizon behind us and work their hell. I'll spare the details; best to experience it for yourself.

And then, when that part is finally over, it becomes apparent that despite the enormous scale of the background disaster, War of the Worlds is actually a small film with only four characters, a broken family placed under stress. You've got grinning jackass Tom Cruise, his belligerent son who hates him Justin Chatwin, and his eerily old-seeming 12-year-old daughter Dakota Fanning, and they run for their lives, and on the way they encounter Tim Robbins. The tripods are frightening, yes, but the film is more interested in probing the human ugliness of crisis, whether it's life-distorting traumas or hideous choices or outright madness. Cruise's Ray Ferrier tries to hold it together and does but only barely, and by doing some pretty shameful things. Or, I suppose you could say, he does what he has to. Either way, it's not pretty.

I'd hoped that War of the Worlds would be a gut-punch for America and it is, a little taste of what it's like to be on the receiving end of the warmaking it's been so carelessly tossing around lately. Unfortunately, since Spielberg for perfectly understandable reasons chose to invoke his disaster with a lot of 9-11-inspired imagery, most Americans are likely to associate the alien invasion with the World Trade Center attacks rather than with the invasions Americans themselves are committing. Still, it is something of a wake-up call for America, a refusal to play the game of pretending that war is ennobling or a great opportunity to show off your heroism.