War of the Worlds: a review (with spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds a couple weeks ago. I’d mostly heard that Tom Cruise played an obnoxious jerk (some claimed this was type-casting) and that everyone was rooting for the Martians to get him. I was mostly interested in the special effects; I already knew the story, and it didn’t sound as though the characters would be all that interesting.

The special effects were fantastic, as they should have been, but the characters really caught me by surprise. Ray (Cruise’s character) was indeed a jerk, a thoroughly unlikeable person to the very end. But Spielberg and Cruise pulled off something wonderfully tricky and subtle with Ray: they got me to care about him, even to sympathize with him, despite my distaste for him. They did it by showing his anguish, his terror, his desperation, his impotence – emotions that resonate at the level of instinct. In other words, they made him deeply human, flawed and vulnerable, and I found myself immersed in the nightmare of the Martian invasion through his experience.

The other surprise was Rachel, played by Dakota Fanning. She began as a very sympathetic character, a sensitive child who ended up more or less abandoned, stripped of all sources of comfort and security. As the action unfolded, however, she descended into a kind of monotonous hysteria that rendered her an object of pity when she was quiet and a source of irritation when she wasn’t. I found myself wishing the Martians would get her so I wouldn’t have to listen to any more of her shrieking, a base response that was at once perfectly understandable and horrifying.

I was delighted at the little touches in this movie that paid homage to George Pal’s classic 1953 film adaptation. The church near the opening of Spielberg’s film reminded me of the church at the end of Pal’s, and the eye-stalk and portions of the cellar scene were adopted wholesale from the earlier film. Best of all, though, were the cameo appearances of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson at the end.

I was most intrigued, however, by how closely Spielberg’s movie paralleled H.G. Wells’ original novel. I immediately recognized the opening and closing voice-overs as Wells’ memorable prose, setting the story firmly within the novel’s Darwinian framework. Other little details throughout the film caught at my time-fuzzed recollections of the novel, so that I dug up a copy and reread it within days. From the neat folding of Wells’ curate and artilleryman into the single character of Harlan Olgilvy (played by Timothy Robbins) to the significance of the boot in the cellar scenes of both works, great care was taken to translate Wells’ 19th century horror story into a 21st century horror film.

My only quibbles were with the design of the aliens themselves (Pal’s 1953 aliens were much closer to Wells’ descriptions) and the fact that Robbie (played by Justin Chatwin) turned up alive at the end. I realize this is also consistent with the ending of the novel, but it was artificial and unnecessary to the story as Spielberg told it. The film’s climactic triumph had already been achieved with the destruction of the tripod; Ray’s and Rachel’s reunion with the pregnant Mary Ann was sufficient assurance that life would indeed go on. Robbie’s miraculous appearance struck me as more saccharine than poignant, and somewhat spoiled the ending of a film that I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed.

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