WAR OF THE WORLDS

(2005)
With Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Reviewed by JB

     In the last few years, Steven Spielberg has offered us some praiseworthy if sometimes flawed movies such as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, MINORITY REPORT, A.I., CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and THE TERMINAL. WAR OF THE WORLDS, properly done, could have topped them all, but turned out to be the poorest film Spielberg has directed in quite some time.

     For a Spielberg film, WAR OF THE WORLDS is much too derivative of other movies, including past Spielberg successes.  A prime example is the scene featuring the probing "seeing eye" tentacle of the Martians, searching for human survivors in a basement.  It starts out as a nod to the 1953 movie of the story, but Spielberg can't leave the sequence alone.  Within minutes, it becomes just another version of the kids versus the dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK.  Mass destruction on a ferry instantly recalls more exciting action on a larger scale from James Cameron's TITANIC.  Hiding in a basement while creatures slink all around the house?  M. Knight Shyamalan's SIGNS.  The Martians themselves, outside of their tripods?  First cousins of the broad-headed creatures from INDEPENDENCE DAY.  Even the initial arrival of the aliens recalls the colored lights in the clouds of Spielberg's outstanding CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.  I was half-waiting for Dakota Fanning to jump on a bicycle with an alien and fly past a full moon in silhouette sometime during the film.

     The attack sequences are well done, but there is never any counterpoint.  Twenty minutes into the film, they attack, and Tom Cruise and family go on the lam.  Then, like clockwork, there is a new attack every twenty minutes.  They are all spectacularly staged, but what happens in between the attacks in never very involving because there is no plot to move along.   It is just a series of explosions and vaporizations in which humans are helpless to do anything but run, and then there is twenty minutes of down time.  A visit with a gun-happy moron played by Tim Robbins doesn't help matters. 

     After the fall of the Martians, which just suddenly occurs an hour and forty-five minutes into the film and has to be explained later by the narrator (Morgan "Call Me Ubiquitous" Freeman), Spielberg tacks on a cheap, feel-good ending that smells of audience test cards, focus grouping and/or corporate happy-think.  Spielberg's had warm, fuzzy endings before, but never one this insulting to its audience.

     There was a huge pre-release buildup to WAR OF THE WORLDS, including Tom Cruise revealing in various TV venues that he is truly nuttier than a case of Snickers Bars. And it opened well to mixed but generally favorable reviews. Then soon after, THE FANTASTIC FOUR hit the theaters, took the number one spot (the only measure of Hollywood success these days)  and WAR OF THE WORLDS was quickly forgotten about.  There was once a time when JAWS or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS had everybody talking all summer.  Now Spielberg films are trumped by Jessica Alba in a skintight jumpsuit.  Welcome to the new era of disposable blockbusters, where even a Spielberg film is just another product to be consumed and forgotten. ½ - JB

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War of the Worlds (1953)

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