Death from above, confusion belowFor a movie that probably cost more than some countries’ armies, “War of the Worlds” is refreshingly simple. We’re introduced to Tom Cruise and his kids. Space aliens attack. Cruise and kids try to stay alive for an hour and a half. That’s about it.
There’s not much dialogue, relatively speaking. What moves the movie along is one big, wordless spectacle after another, filmed with the omnibudget panache and relative grace one expects from Steven Spielberg, who directed. A city block is swallowed by the earth. Someone wakes in the morning to find the house surrounded by the wreckage of a plane crash. Machines as tall as skyscrapers, droning like Tibetan monks, rise from behind a hill and start frying people in the rain. What’s to be said?
Normally in a big end-of-the-world movie like this, there’s quite a lot to be said. That’s because there are plucky heroes called upon to figure out the fatal weakness of the aliens/vampires/killer bees/giant asteroid and save Earth at the last second. (Two of the heroes are required to be in love, and sassy, defiant quips must be made in the face of overwhelming odds.) But there’s no plucky Earth-saving here. No one figures out the aliens’ weakness. No one really even knows what’s going on. We learn next to nothing about where these things came from or what they want from the planet, except that it involves killing everybody. The perspective throughout is that of a frightened refugee.
Cruise’s character is a divorced father of two, living in bachelor squalor, who happens to have his kids for the weekend when the aliens attack. The kids are a sullen teenage boy (Justin Chatwin) and a little girl played by spooky 11-year-old Dakota Fanning, who’s been getting major film roles since she was six or seven years old, and who has never seemed any younger than 35. The interplay between these three ― mostly having to do with Cruise’s inadequacy as a dad, and the sudden, dramatic requirement that he overcome it ― is about all the human intimacy there is in the movie, but it’s all that’s needed. Spielberg has a knack for depicting broken middle-class families with little sentimentality and a certain bitter, wistful humor. It’s made to seem that there are real people at stake.
From Cruise’s home, in what I think is supposed to be greater New York, the three of them manage to make it out of the metropolitan area, swerving around stalled vehicles and frightened, wandering people. (For some reason, Cruise seems to be the first person on the East Coast who figures out how to get a vehicle running after an “electromagnetic pulse” stops everyone else’s.) From there to the abandoned home of the kids’ mother, then further up the Eastern seaboard, the crowds of refugees get bigger, and less friendly. Army vehicles whiz past, to parts unknown. As presumably is the case in actual wars, the vast majority of people caught up in this one experience it not as combat, but as confusion, exhaustion and dread. When death does come from above, whether it gets them or not is a matter of chance. Little middle-aged Dakota asks at one point, “Is it the terrorists?” It might as well be.
War of the Worlds
Action, Sci-fi / English
By David Moll