Short form: From the man who reminded the American public how to be so frightened by a movie that they will crap thier drawers comes the retelling of H.G. Wells' seminal science fiction story. This movie is freaking awesome!!!!!
I'll admit it: I went to this movie wanting to like it, so I went with a self-lowered bar. I've been a fan of The War of the Worlds for years now. Not only do I have the 1953 Pal version on VHS but also DVD...which is good for the VHS as it would be nearly worn out by now.
Also, I've been a student of the various iterations of this story. I've read Wells' original novel, seen the '53 version many times, as menched, and adore its bastard sibling (Independence Day) despite its flaws. So, for me, the movie not only had to bring the special effects, it had to bring it on other levels: tension, suspense, fantastic situations, homage, symbolism, and story.
This movie arrives in spades on every level.
A few examples? Sure.
Oh, by the way, there are spoilers of a sort. Not giving away the ending...everyone by now should know how the story plays out. But there are situations that would probably have less impact if one knew they were coming, and I'm going to go a little long on a few. So, be warned.
Tension. The movie starts in the Newark shipyards with worker Ray Farrier (Tom Cruise), a happy-go-lucky but dissolute divorced father. Nothin' ain't no big deal for him, not even his bitter son and his 12-going-on-30 (at least by the way she talks) daughter. He's just late for meeting his ex and her husband dropping the kids by the house on thier way up to see Grandma and Grampa in Boston.
Once the audience is lulled into a complacency with dysfunctional Dad'n'Kids, the portents in the sky come (and, in a traditional submotif, news reports from around the world tantalizingly flicker on TV screens just long enough for us to know that something's up). EMP halts all the cars, and Ray goes to the scene to find out just what the hell was up with all that lightning.
Spielberg ratchets up the tension beginning then. At the site of the lightning strikes, things begin to fall apart, bit by bit by bit...the street splits open, the front of a nearby building shifts aside and falls down, the intersection heaves and collapses into a huge hole, and still nothing comes out...then something does...a great snakelike leg...then the head of the Tripod, going up, ever up, until it seems to be more than a hundred feet in the sky.
The angles are perfect. The Tripod is huge, menacing and unquestionably malevolent. It revs up and gets to work...the heat ray projectors, mounted on two tentacles, come out and begin firing. The camerawork is amazing. You aren't watching a scene of people running for thier very lives; due to the work of the master in building the tension for the war machine's appearance you feel as though you're running for your life along with the crowd, and as the ray bloodlessly vaporizes hapless soul after hapless soul, your heart is racing, your blood is pounding and you're thanking God that pictures of the Tripods weren't leaked out so that you could be properly surprised.
Whilst there are lulls occaisionally, there is little let up to the tension and the suspense. You don't know, while Ray and his kids are running for thier lives and trying to avoid desperate humans and murderous aliens, what's around the next corner.
But you should have known this going in. After all, this was the director that gave us Jaws, and reminded American moviegoers what it's like to be scared all over again.
Fantastic situations. The art and visualizations on this film are simply the stuff bad dreams are made of. Vast scenes of destruction and ruin, vivid realizations of things getting destroyed by all-but-unstoppable machines. The movies invites close and repeated viewing. At one point Ray comes out of a house in which he'd holed up for a few days and scans the horizon for a moment. The world has been redone in shades of red, with fires dotting the horizon. It is realistic, and scary.
Homage. The story has heritage and history. Knowing nods toward that heritage, while not required, are appreciated and give the story historical resonance...and are even better when done deftly. While the story was set in the present day, it takes lovingly from the path that Wells and Pal had tread before.
The war machines are Tripods, as in the original novel, and as well, they communicate in a terrifying, unearthly, booming noise. They've remembere to design the heat ray's projectors onto the ends of tentacles, just as the novel suggests-though the execution is perhaps a bit different than originally envisioned.
In beginning in Newark, the movie doffs its cap in the direction of Orson Welles, who's radio play that shook the country was set in northern New Jersey. There is a desperate ferry voyage where, at the landing, the chaos has a counterpoint in a Tony Bennett song playing over loudspeakers and there is a soft halo to all the lights, suggesting perhaps an earlier time, caught unawares by the ensuing chaos. The ill-starred ferry trip itself reminded me of the voyage of the HMS Thunder Child.
The soujourn trapped in the house with aliens all round, which was shared by Wells' narrator with an unhinged and cowardly cleric and by Dr Clayton Forrester with Sylvia Van Buren, is shared by Ray and his daughter with a refugee ambulance driver (Tim Robbins, who comes close to stealing these scenes) who goes first slowly, then quickly nuts. His character seems to combine Wells' cleric and a military man from the novel, and cribs a line about underground refuges in the city from him. And, in yet another homage to the novel, the man is given the name Ogilvy...a supporting character in the novel.
During the time they hide out in the basement of the house, an alien probe comes in and looks for them, a scene that is extremely reminiscent of the scene in Pal's '53 movie where Dr Forrester and Sylvia avoid a probe. And, when the return of the probe wakes up Ray's daughter, Ray grabs a hatchet and goes to work on it, just as Forrester did. He doesn't quite sever the thing, though.
Earlier on, Ray and his kids encounter a news van from a New York City television station. The female reporter, of whose crew is just as desperately fleeing the destruction and murder as everyone else, cribs a line from the '53 film's General Mann character: "Once the Tripods begin to move, no more news comes out of that area."
The battlefield scenes may use modern equipement, but the atmosphere of them was lifted right out of the '53 film's battle scenes.
I'm going on a bit and major digressions will soon ensue. Suffice it to say that one of the most important homages happen toward the end...the appearance of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. It's expected but unexpected, and a welcome sight.
Symoblism. One of the most-cited aspects of War of the Worlds is the way it seems to bear signs of the greater worries of the day. Many Wells afectionados will cite a few. Pal's '53 film wears its post-WWII patriotism, it's faith in science and the military as The Good Guys, and a certain Cold War fear and loathing rather simply. In this version, the Tripods emerge from the ground, apparently buried there some time before, waiting for the operators to arrive. Some cite this as a commentary on our fears of terrorism, of enemies that may be in hiding amongst us.
The most plaintive and plain symbolism comes in the reaction of the son. Sullen and disinterested, passionate about nothing, and detached to a pose in the beginning, the attack on his homeland arouses such a fierce hatred of the invaders in him that he demands the opportunity to fight back, and keeps trying to join every band of military equipment that comes by. This reminds me, more than a little, of the impulse so many people had after the WTC disaster, to join the armed forces and help deliver the retaliation our attackers still so richly deserve.
Story. Save the casting of the narrator as a dissolute and bitter divorced father, the story keeps as close as it can to the general motifs of the Wells novel, and comes closer than the '53 film ever did.
The biggest difference would be the delivery of the aliens to our planet...it's never clear where they came from. It was apparently reasoned that a departure from Mars was out of the question, since our automated scouts have found nought but barrens there, and certainly nothing that may ever have contained higher life as we know it.
Indeed, while it was obvious that the aliens came to Earth to conquer, what drove them away from wherever it was they came from is not at all clear. We just see them here.
All in all, the arrival of the aliens was handled cleverly, and I find it doesn't detract from the sense of story.
I'll bring this ramble to a close by making the following pronouncment: as Wells' novel was important for it's time, as Welles' radio broadcast was its age's version, and as Pal's version fit it's times, this version is the version for our times.
H.G. Wells may or may not have realized it, but he provided us with a way to cast our times in allegory and surprise and suspense as appropriate for the epoch.
This movie is coming home to us as soon as it's out on DVD.
And, for once, it was nice to see a disaster film that didn't have FOX or SKY news reporters. That one was getting a bit old.