War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 06/30/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

War of the Worlds, director Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into science fiction (his specialty, many would argue), is a heck of an entertaining flick. The design and execution of the adventure sequences, the overall trashing of the world by the giant tripod robots marching around a destroying everything, is incredibly well-done and really is quite engaging. I was a little surprised how much I liked it myself.

The devastation wrought by the invaders really calls to mind Mars Attacks (1996) in a sense, this bloody, heartless annihilation of all things human. The river full of corpses and the sucking out of human blood really characterize the campy and shocking violence of the bubble-gum cards that inspired Tim Burton’s comedic satire. It’s definitely effective here, played for shock and seriousness, rather than for laughs.

As is often commented about Spielberg films, I think a strong argument can be made that the villans in this film, the aliens, can be interpreted as representations of the Nazis. There is this idea that in all Spielberg films, the villans are the Nazis, even the shark in Jaws (1975).

In the case of War of the Worlds, there are things that reckon of the holocaust: people being vaporized and turned into light ash, while their clothing flutters emptily down to earth (the ash like the resultant burning of bodies in concentration camps and the clothing as the remnants of a race exterminated), the bodies in the river (the bulk of death), and the chilling coldness of the aliens extermination of the human race.

War of the Worlds also reckons heavily of post 9/11 world as well. The attack on New York city, the hand-made posters for missing persons plastered all over the city, the crashed airplane, and again the ash leftovers of the vaporization covering Tom Cruise as he returns from the heart of “ground zero” (here the ash is like the soot of the pulverized World Trade Centers rather than human remains). Spielberg touches nerves with these allusions, quickly and effectively reckoning great tragedies in brief images, giving some emotional scale to the destruction being shown.

Spielberg exemplifies his own directing style with the “family” moments, creating a “heart” of the film. The performance that he gets out of Dakota Fanning is remarkably typical of the way that he directs children, cute and telescoping emotions, incredibly shallow and pap-like. Cruise is part of this too, though interestingly, his natural cockiness that is usually portrayed as a deserved attitude in films in which he is an ace something (race car driver, jet pilot, pool shark) is played against itself here, as he is a man with a broken family and kids that don’t relate to him, too self-assured to doubt his place, until his humbling and heroic experience. This whole side of the film is really its greatest drag.

The ending, which more or less comes from the original source written at the turn of the century by H.G. Wells, is a whole lot of anti-climax after the adventure of the humans fighting back. But in other ways it’s quite an intentionally humbling climax, in that the humans were pretty much doomed and all their pluck and humanity wouldn’t have saved them. In essence they are saved by a plague that has exterminated many races with the globalization of European expansion across the globe.

I don’t know, I liked seeing this film on the big screen, and I would pretty much recommend it straight up.

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