Sunday, March 25, 2012

Steven Spielberg: War of the Worlds

It's just as well that War of the Worlds was hobbled upon its initial release by the lingering effects of Tom Cruise's infamous couch-jumping whatever. If Americans were going to let a stupid thing like that distract them, who knows how they might have reacted if they realized what all the movie had to say about 9/11 and the still-raging debate over Iraq. Even the conclusion of H.G. Wells' original novel, forecast in the opening credits expanding outward from single-cell organisms to humanity and even the cosmos, reflects the pitfalls of the War on Terror. "Occupations always fail!" declares a mad character late in the film, and one gets the distinct feeling he isn't just talking about invaders from Mars.

But War of the Worlds is, for the most part, not a commentary on the War on Terror so much as snapshot of what inspired it and how the national emotions of panic, grief, rage and bewilderment contributed to it. There's no criticism here; that would come with Spielberg's other 2005 film. No, War of the Worlds' primary aim is still to function as a blockbuster, but in its finely detailed, occasionally surreal construction is an almost therapeutic attempt to recreate an event fresh in the nation's mind, all the better to study it and to (hopefully) make a more informed decision than we did when that day actually happened.

Though Catch Me If You Can served as the non plus ultra of Spielberg's pet themes of absent fathers and confused children, War of the Worlds finds a new angle from which to approach that well-explored subject matter. Cruise may have sent the marketing department up the wall before it was all over, but his was an inspired casting choice. Spielberg presents the actor, then still America's everyman, as not merely a neglectful dad but a willfully repellent one. Cruise's Ray arrives home from work to find that he's late for picking up his kids from his ex-wife (Miranda Otto), and he offers no apology for his misunderstanding of their meeting time. Alone with the teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young Rachel (Dakota Fanning), Ray proves to be uninterested in his children and almost willfully unconcerned with their lives and well-being.

In these opening scenes, Cruise is nearly at his most unpleasant, surpassed only by his misogynistic event speaker in Magnolia. In a hopelessly outdated and transparently thin attempt to interact with Robbie, Ray makes his son come out for a game of catch. The contentious lines they exchange slowly increase the force of each throw, until Robbie makes the mistake of mentioning him mom's new husband. Cruise's face doesn't change, but he throws the baseball so hard that one doesn't need to hear the resulting thud of the ball hitting Robbie's mitt or see the boy wince to feel the oomph behind the toss. Ray spares but a modicum more affection for Rachel, snottily reacting to her ordering takeout from a health food place and largely ignoring her.

By presenting Ray as such an unlikable figure at the start, Spielberg emphasizes that what is about to happen can affect anyone, and also that it can profoundly change people. The director forecasts the oncoming horror in ways that should be obvious to everyone: news reports bring updates of strange storms in other countries that trigger EMP blackouts, rendering whole areas without electronics. But that is the rest of the world, and no television that shows these reports stays on for very long before someone changes the channel or turns off the set. And when one of those storms forms over New York, Ray observes that the wind is blowing toward the storm clouds with a tone of mild curiosity. Even when lightning rains down on the area (without accompanying thunder), he and others continue to mill about to see what is going on. Naïve and sheltered, the Americans congregate around an opened crack in the ground, totally unperturbed until the ground begins to quake and splinter, and finally cave into a giant hole.

The next hour and 45 minutes display Spielberg at his visceral best, twisting the formal prowess he normally uses for elegant, graceful depictions of wonder and optimism into a device for conveying sheer and utter terror. From the giant hole in the ground emerges an enormous tripod, a war machine that barely has time to stretch out fully before it begins slaughtering people and destroying buildings. Ray only just manages to get away, running back to his house to grab the kids and steal a van that's been repaired after the EMP blast. As Rachel shrieks "Is it the terrorists?!" New York is reduced to embers behind them.

The connections between the alien invasion and 9/11 and the War on Terror range from the literal to the abstract. The machines, buried for however many millennia, obviously reflect underground sleeper cells, dormant until a surprise attack. Their heat rays turn people into ashes, which blanket Ray as beams cut through those around him. The image of Ray literally covered with the dead recalls horrible images of people covered in the dust and debris cloud of the falling towers, while downed airplanes and crumbling buildings only hammer home the horrid sights of that awful day.

In broader terms, the aliens elicit basic, deeply felt emotional responses. Every time a tripod happens upon Ray's location, the frame almost literally shudders with fear, while the sense of not knowing what's happening or where one might go for safety pervades every frame. There is also the anger, the instant thirst for reprisal that overrides any strategy, even sense. Robbie begins to wear a look of perpetual fury on his face, itching to strike back at the invaders despite the hopelessness of the situation. As with terrorists, the aliens are impervious to the best of our military technology: the aliens have even better technology that renders them invulnerable to attack, while the terrorists' organization makes might an irrelevant factor in the equation. Robbie represents so many people in the wake of 9/11, so ready for payback that they never stopped to consider what kind of conflict they'd be getting into, or what might happen to them when they did.

Spielberg frames all of this with surprising formalism, flecked with even more surprising traces of surrealism. After spawning an entire generation of clumsy knock-offs with the gritty, close-up handheld cameras of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg offers a check to his legion of copycats by capturing visuals no less wrenching and instantly felt despite their careful, classical composition. Occasionally recalling the love of old genre fare that informed the Indiana Jones series, Spielberg employs some shots that have an almost storybook quality to them, as if he'd brought an illustrated copy of the book to life. One scene that particularly sticks to me takes place at a ferry as throngs of people push toward the overloaded boat, only for telltale warning signs to precede the emergence of a tripod behind everyone. As the machine lets out one of its booming horns, the camera cuts to frame it looming over the Hudson as mist swirls over the bright lights around the pier. It's a gorgeous shot, and one that freezes my heart every single time I see it.

As for the surrealism, Spielberg tops even the grim oddities of Empire of the Sun. That film included a memorable scene of Jim wandering around his ransacked neighborhood in Shanghai, abandoned luggage cast aside and clothes strewn across the ground as if their wearers had been raptured out of them. Spielberg resuses that offbeat, troubling image on a larger scale here, as tripods snatch up prey and send clothes falling gently to the ground like giant snowflakes after using up the people inside them. The director even perverts his personal use of close-ups in a shot where Rachel heads out of her brother and father's eyesight to use the bathroom by a river, only to see bodies drifting downstream. As sunlight bounces off the clear water, Spielberg pushes in on Fanning's face as the golden light flickers over her stunned features. The flicker almost gives the shot a feeling of an old silent film, and Fanning's overwhelmed shock a tinge of Expressionist horror.

There's also a shot late in the film after Ray discovers that the aliens are spreading a red weed everywhere that they fertilize with liquified humans. As he stumbles out from a hiding place, Ray walks in front of a broken wooden fence looking out into a (literally) blood-soaked horizon. It's a shot that might have come out of Johnny Guitar, a beautifully grotesque, madly stylized Western panorama as striking as it is disturbing.

Another disquieting element of War of the Worlds is the frank manner in which it suggests, like any good monster movie, that the other survivors can be as bad as the creatures. When Ray reaches the Hudson ferry, he and the kids are forcibly taken from the van by a crowd of people who want it even though there's nowhere to run. And when the tripod rises up over the ferry, the soldiers on-board instantly call for the ferry to take off, callously stranding hundreds to be massacred to make a futile attempt at getaway. But the true personification of the insanity of those left behind comes in Tim Robbins' delightfully named Harlan Ogilvy, a man who would be perfectly at home in a George A. Romero zombie film. Driven out of his mind by his family's death, Harlan shares Robbie's absurd dream of taking the fight to the aliens; armed with a shotgun, he is only infinitesimally less hopeless than the unarmed boy. As Harlan slips deeper into madness, Ray slowly realizes that he will need to deal with the man to keep Rachel safe. When the situation comes to a head, Spielberg treats us to one of his darkest shots, again staying in close-up on Rachel's face, a blindfold over her eyes and her fingers jammed in her ears as she sings a lullaby to herself, as Ray murders Harlan in the next room. Were it not for a certain scene in Munich which I will later discuss, this would be the single bleakest, most unsentimental shot in Spielberg's entire canon.

These gut-wrenching moments, combined with the technical perfection of practically every moment (Spielberg's decision to use as much live-effects as possible, as with Jurassic Park, makes the CGI that much more lastingly great) would cement War of the Worlds as one of Spielberg's greatest achievements, if not one hiccup. Yep, you guessed it, it's the ending. Spielberg retains the gist of Wells' ending for better and worse: it's fitting that he should still attribute the downfall of the invasion to bacteria against which the aliens have no immunity. It was a brilliant touch in the original novel and one that fits seamlessly here as a lesson about a technologically superior force inserting itself into an unfamiliar environment where the elements can defeat even the strongest foe.

But the other part of Wells' ending, the unlikely reunion with characters presumed dead, is harder to defend. Robbie's awkward return is simply senseless, and it robs the film of its somber implications regarding his headlong rush into death. When he leaves Ray and Rachel, he doesn't do so on the best of terms: there are things left unsaid, and the expectation of his death in the sudden conflagration spoke to all the lives cut short by that patriotic swell of enlistment and the unquestioning deployment into the Middle East. For Robbie to just show up, totally fine, at the end and allow a proper reconciliation between father and son is one of Spielberg's most glaring moments of dishonesty, denying the painful reality for a tacked-on bit of cheer that ironically seemed to piss off everyone. But with Spielberg's next release, even this tiny shred of optimism would be ruthlessly purged from all discussion of our current climate of war.


  1. Jake, this is a splendid review. I originally published my own piece on War of the Worlds over holiday break, but then took it down because I realized I was misinterpreting the ending of Wells' novel, which I misguidedly described as "cynical" in the piece. I had misread the narrator's finale line, "She has counted me among the dead" (about his wife) as a suggestion that their marriage had turned hollow in the wake of the invasion, when in actuality he was just commenting on how they both assumed each other was dead during it. So in a way, the ending of Spielberg's movie is kinda, sorta faithful to Wells. It doesn't *quite* make sense how Robbie could have survived the wall of fire, although I guess Spielberg trusts us to assume we don't need to know all the details of Robbie's survival. He probably saved some lives and averted some near-death experiences on his own, and we just don't know about it.

    I can see why the ending may come across as too nice to some, and it does give weight to the argument of Spielberg's detractors that his endings are all too often middlebrow, but as a flaw of the film, it doesn't bother me the way it used to. My most recent viewing of the film was in fact the richest, since I only then noticed the parallels to Iraq for the very first time ("Occupations always fail!"), even though I should have detected them sooner because Jim Emerson mentioned them in his brilliant defense of the film.

    This really is a great movie, but unfortunately if you were walk up to some random person on the street and ask them about it, they'll tell you they thought it was bad, and will probably say it's because they thought Dakota Fanning was annoying and because Cruise was, too. I still believe most viewers let Cruise's offscreen antics color their perceptions of the film as a whole (and I'm CONFIDANT that this, above all, explains the film's meager score of 6.5 on IMDB), and that's just tragic. Had Cruise not acted up in the media, perhaps this movie would be taken just as seriously by fanboys as Avatar and Inception were.

  2. I think people write off so much of the film that I'm almost tempted to give the coda a pass, but it just rings so false for me, especially in light of what came before. I'd have rather ended with a sort of tattered, grieving relief than the false joy. People routinely give Spielberg crap for his endings, but I think he made three of the most profoundly unsettling with CE3K, A.I. and Empire of the Sun. WotW called for such an ending, and it's so frustrating that it lacks one.