Before seeing War Of The Worlds with the much-maligned Tom Cruise, I have to admit that I had kept my hopes down. Reviews were poor to middling and alien invasion movies like ID4 had left a really nasty taste in my mouth. When I eventually made the afternoon showing with friends (not in the death grip of cynicism) I was surprised - moved in fact. This was not the film I had expected at all. Well, let me qualify that. This is WOTW, after all - there are no real narrative surprises. This is the H G Wells novel beginning to end. Both prolog and coda are voiced masterfully by Morgan Freeman. Surprisingly little was changed from the original text.
Still, the film that unfolds within the framework of this classic prose is, in a word, unsettling. I've described it to friends as Saving Private Ryan with aliens. It's a no-holds-barred exploration of man-meets-unstoppable-alien-menace and they are both unstoppable and menacing. Independence Day (ID4) was so full for spectacular pyrotechnics and whoopla that it was difficult to associate the fantastic light show with the toll in human life. Here, with WOTW, we see human tragedy meted out, person by person, by means of a meandering disintegration beam. It makes human beings go 'pop'. Neat, clinical and utterly, utterly revolting.
My favorite image from the movie has to be Tom Cruise and his panicked neighbors fleeing the tripod menace amidst a gentle, drifting shower of the torn clothing previously worn by disintegrated victims. The full scale of the catastrophe and Cruise's terror become clear when we encounter a surviving news crew. After a full day of wading through the wreckage and destruction of the Jersey Tripod, Tom sees taped footage of attacks on Washington and Los Angeles. Tom's only comment is "There's more than one?!"
WOTW is filled with both adaptation of and allusion to both the book and the classic film. Throughout, Director Steven Spielberg drives home the point that we are at the losing end of an extremely asymmetrical conflict. There is literally nothing we posses which can address the seamless power of the alien war machines. "When the tripods start moving, there's no more news from that area..."
We follow Cruise from town to town as he and his children flee the coalescing alien menace. We see the US military make an awesome stand against the alien war machines but to no avail. We wind up in the same farmhouse that served as the focus of the George Pal film's third act. Through it all we are only allowed to see as much and as little as one man would have been able to see himself. The ending of the film arrives exactly as expected and is no less satisfying for the certainty. It actually comes as a sort of relief.
There is one satisfying moment that celebrates the value of human tenacity wherein beleaguered soldiers get a crack at an unshielded tripod. While the scene seems somewhat tacked on and perhaps a bit patronizing, it is certainly a moment well earned by an audience held witness to two hours of wholesale human extermination on a personal level. While the closing moments of Spielberg's WOTW lack the whitewash scenes of churchgoers mobbing cathedrals like a Tokyo subway at rush-hour, Wells and Mr. Freeman are there to remind us of God's roll in our deliverance from alien extermination.
By the end of the film, I was spent. What I had seen was, in a word, unsettling. I felt just as I had after watching the fall of Baghdad for six hours straight. I had to keep reminding myself that the world was still intact and that the Teamsters at the Jersey docks had not lost even a day of work. Spielberg had taken my hand and walked me through a personal tour of all but total human annihilation. The toll, according to Mr. Freeman (with apologies to H G) was over a billion souls.
I can't say that this was a 'good film' in the sense that films of substance and importance often are. What I can say is that WOTW is a moving film in exactly the way that 'good films' often fail to be. WOTW for its part did remind me how fragile our world is. And how little it would take to rip its interlocking systems asunder. I was recently asked to hit WOTW for a second viewing. There is no doubt; I'll have to see this one again. But at the time I was asked, I wasn't ready. I needed a little more time in the sunlight with the world as it is before revisiting the dark and relentless cautionary of what it could so easily become.