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When it’s on: Sunday, 12 August (8.10 pm)
Channel: BBC3
IMDb Link

Is Steven Spielberg a ‘tarnished brand?’ An old thread on the Digital Fix forums offered a discussion of the films he directed and the possibility he has never quite hit the heights of E.T., which this year celebrates its 30th birthday. Surely some heresy, one might argue, especially as the man responsible for some of the highest grossing pictures in history went on to be a critical darling also. And yet there’s a nagging sense that once you pick apart the work bookended by the second and fourth Indiana Jones entries, you’re left with a handful of classics, some ‘worthies’ and a body that largely trades on the brilliance of his earlier efforts. This isn’t the place for me to dissect each and every film, but as far as I’m concerned there are several real stinkers – The Terminal, Always, Crystal Skull, Hook – and a number of productions that have been critically lauded because of the subject matter they cover, rather than their articistic merits. I’ve always struggled with Saving Private Ryan once it moves off the beaches, and the less said about Schindler’s List the better. Suffice it to say a film that blew me away in the cinema has left me feeling cold and ever so slightly manipulated with repeat viewings.

On the other hand, the ones I actually like – Catch Me If You Can, A.I., Empire of the Sun, Minority Report – are a mixed bag in terms of their far from universal appeal. I’d watch any of these films again, though the entry that really strikes me as a hark back to the glory days is War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s update of HG Wells’s groundbreaking science fiction novel. It isn’t an especially easy film to defend, given the half-hearted reception it received upon its release, its far from universal appeal and the presence of a star who was beginning to do incredible levels of damage to his own reputation in 2005. But I love it. Much that happens in War of the Worlds works – the masterfully flowing tension levels, the invasion story combining with a classic ‘Berg yarn about the bad Dad learning to be a good one through sheer adversity, the choice of shots, the absence of forced humour, the invaders’ sheer relentlessness, the speed with which humans are reduced to rats, and so on. Visually and narratively, it all hangs together so well that, in my book, the naysayers are made to nitpick in order to find their problems with it.

If there is a fundamental problem with War of the Worlds, it’s in the ending, which is retained from the novel. On paper, the conclusion of the tale works wonderfully, not least because it has some plausible scientific basis (Wells had a degree in zoology), yet it has the potential to cut deep into mounting suspense levels and feel tacked on, which is arguably what happens in the film. After spending the vast portion of the film running away, hiding and suffering, watching bullets do nothing to the alien tripods and ultimately waiting to be exterminated with the rest of the population, our heroes simply find that the unwelcome visitors have died, their immune systems open to bacteria and contagions, thereby giving humanity a dramatically unsatisfying let-off. How one improves upon this climax is a question few have tried to answer. In Independence Day, we learned that the bad guys from outer space were as vulnerable to computer viruses as any technically under-evolved Windows user. Is this any better? Or might a blast of Indian Love Call do instead?

The problem for screenwriter David Koepp seemed so unresolveable that he didn’t try to find one. Instead, we’re left to deal with an ending that approximates that of the novel, while all the effort goes into the survival story experienced by Tom Cruise and his family. It’s as though he threw in the towel at the close of play, decided that everyone watching the film knows how the story ends and grafted on something vaguely appropriate. Its conclusion includes a Spielberg-esque family reunion that jars horribly with the gritty realism of what’s happened before, but by then one gets the impression everybody has stopped bothering.

All of which is a shame because until then, WotW is about as good as it gets. It certainly deserves better than to be wrapped up so unsatisfyingly. After all, Spielberg’s real classics – Jaws, Raiders, Close Encounters, E.T. – build towards finales that carry all the dramatic weight and logic one would expect. Even A.I., another film criticised for its syrupy ending, makes narrative sense; after two hours of steadily escalating horrors, David’s reunion with his mother is all he has coming to him. In War of the Worlds, Koepp and Spielberg expunge many of the global events that punctuated both the text and 1953 George Pal film, focusing instead on the experiences of one New Jersey man and his family. It’s a decision that works. Viewers can identify with the blue collar crane operator who’s the film’s main character – his curiousity in the early minutes, his blind panic when the aliens emerge and the things he does afterward. The project was always envisaged as a vehicle for Tom Cruise. After the director and actor enjoyed collaborating on Minority Report, Spielberg started reeling off movie concepts to Cruise before they agreed on the third one, a fresh adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Cruise plays Ray, a working class anti-hero who has long since let his marriage collapse and now only sees his children at the convenience of his ex-wife (Miranda Otto). The kids are Robbie (Justin Chatwin), a disaffected teenager, and ten year old Rachel (Dakota Fanning), both of whom see the prospect of a weekend with dad as a chore rather than a pleasure. Ray’s just as bad. He’s late to meet them and his house is a mess of oil and engine parts – one pitying look from Otto is enough to reveal how the relationship died, through apathy and a life of rolling nothingness. Just finishing a shift at the dock, Ray leaves his kids to their own devices while he sleeps. Robbie makes off in his car. Rachel orders a takeaway and Ray is disgusted to find she’s gone for health food. The lack of any sense of ease between the three of them is palpable. Ray might not like to hear his teenage son calling him an asshole, always using ‘Ray’ rather than ‘dad’ because he clearly hasn’t earned the title, but neither does he do anything to arrest the situation. The dysfunctional trio is trapped in an entropy of going through the familial motions. What can possibly break them out of it?

Any seasoned viewer of Spielberg knows exactly what the outcome will be. The son of divorced parents who returns to the theme of families uniting through adversity again and again in his films, the director presents his War of the Worlds characters with the challenge of escaping from enemy aliens that are armed with vastly superior technology, a bloodlust for human flesh and licence to kill. Obviously, they’ll bond through their experiences, yet they’re put through the sort of emotional wringer that would test anybody. The first appearance of an alien tripod is marvellous cinema. Lightning has been hitting the same spot in Ray’s Jersey town, so he goes to investigate the hole it’s left in an intersection, along with half the community. At first, they’re curious, ignoring the policeman who asserts there’s something down there. But then the fear hits, as the road starts to subside, pulse, ripping nearby buildings in half before the alien machine emerges, shattering any sense of normality as much from its ear-splitting horn as the very sight of it. Almost instantly, the entity sets about laying waste to all life surrounding it, emitting a blast that terrifyingly destroys anything organic whilst clothes remain unharmed. Ray flees with the rest, enjoying several near misses, though it’s made clear this is due to nothing more than random good luck.

The rest of the film is a road movie, Ray and his kids heading for Boston, ostensibly because he wants to reunite the children with Otto whilst really giving their panicky escape a sense of purpose. Everything that happens is told from their perspective, the things they learn about the outside world and their own encounters with aliens and fellow victims. This delivers some glorious use of special effects – the collapsing bridge – though it’s to the film’s credit that CGI is deployed as necessary rather than gratuitously. Spielberg senses that computer effects, whilst photo-realistic, are clearly just bits of digital wizardry and everyone watching the film knows they aren’t really there, so the most emotionally affecting bits in the film focus instead on the intimate dynamics within the family. Instead of shooting scene after scene of people being vapourised, the loss of lives is contained in a small moment where Rachel sees piles of clothes carried by a river’s current. She knows what that means, and so do we.

The dysfunctional human reaction is covered many times, but is best exhibited near the end, when Ray and Rachel hide in the cellar of a demented survivalist named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Combining two characters from the book (the curate and the artilleryman) whilst taking the name of Wells’s doomed astronomer, Ogilvy seems to offer sanctuary but is clearly nuts and someone Ray has to deal with. This bit also includes the film’s tensest moments, the aliens’ entry into the cellar during which the humans have little option but to hide and hope.

There’s much about the film that doesn’t make sense when you think about it, such as the scientific denouement and the unlikely possibility that aliens set on dominating Earth wouldn’t first do their homework concerning its biology. Spielberg does his best to mask these fundamental faults, enveloping the story in a series of tense scenes and showing everything from Ray’s jaded point of view. A shame he achieves this so well that after two hours of escalating suspense, the film just finishes.

War of the Worlds: ****

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