movie film review | chris tookey

War of the Worlds

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  War of the Worlds Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
6.72 /10
Tom Cruise , Dakota Fanning , Miranda Otto
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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Koepp

Released: 2005
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 116

All the signs were that Steven Spielberg’s version of H.G.Wells’s classic would be a turkey. The reluctance to show this film to critics, the feeble trailer, the lacklustre nature of Spielberg’s last effort (The Terminal) and Tom Cruise’s transparently desperate attempt to drum up publicity all pointed in the same direction – but, as it turns out, the wrong one. War of the Worlds is a massive return to form for Spielberg, the best blockbuster of the summer (superior even to Batman Begins) and, I would be happy to argue, one of the greatest action epics of all time.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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There has been no director better than Spielberg at manufacturing huge, action-and-special-effects blockbusters that don’t neglect the human, the humorous, the seemingly inconsequential detail that sets the hairs on the back of our neck on end. That is the reason why he is the most commercially successful director ever, and the central explanation of why War of the Worlds is likely to become this year’s biggest hit.

When in full-out commercial mode, as here, Spielberg doesn’t make pictures that win actors Oscar nominations. But once again he makes excellent use of the world’s most popular actor, Tom Cruise (pictured left).

For all his drive and good looks, Cruise has a cocky, egocentric side, and his boyishness is starting to look spooky in a man over 40. Spielberg skilfully sets up the expectation that Cruise will be a conventionally pushy, Bruce Willis-style, blue-collar action-hero (the first shot shows him lifting huge containers in the docks, from within a gigantic crane), but then this master-director turns our assumptions on their head. This is virtually the first action picture since Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in which the hero spends all his time running away.

“Where’s the heroism in that?” you may well ask. His heroism lies in his determination to protect not his own life, but his children’s. And Spielberg makes his emotional progress to maturity beautifully clear.

When we first meet Cruise, his work down at the docks has made him late for an appointment to take charge of his two children by his former wife (Miranda Otto), now heavily pregnant by another man. With admirable economy, and largely through images, Spielberg shows us a family so dysfunctional that it has collapsed, the class reasons why it has broken down (she’s posher than he is), as well as the personal reasons (his reluctance to grow up and take responsibility).

Heavy machinery, cars and even guns, Tom can handle. Where he’s all at sea is in his relations with his ex-wife, his 17 year-old son (Justin Chatwin, pictured right), all gangly walk and headphones, like a non-tennis-playing Andrew Murray, and Tom’s little daughter (Dakota Fanning, pictured centre), who’s into health foods.

There’s a great little verbal exchange when Tom spreads a sandwich for her.

“I’m allergic to peanut butter,” says Dakota.

“Oh? Since when?” Tom banters merrily.

“Birth,” replies Dakota, with an accusatory stare that could fell any absentee father at 20 paces.

There’s another lovely moment later on, when Dakota (an uncannily fine child actress) needs her father to comfort her with a lullaby. He doesn’t know any, so he sings her a verse of “Little Deuce Coupe”, showing her, us and – in a moment of revelation – himself, that he can sing about his affection for a car, but not for his own daughter.

As for epic special effects and searing imagery, Spielberg does not disappoint. Bridges collapse, boats sink, aircraft crash, people explode, a train rushes past with its carriages on fire. The crowd scenes here are especially brilliantly directed.

Just as important as the awe-inspiring spectacle, however, are the pace of the storytelling and the masterful use of suspense (there’s a scene in a basement that’s just as effective as the kitchen hunt by the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, or the search by the mechanical spiders in Minority Report). All the time, Spielberg makes us feel we are involved within the action, with some telling detail that brings us closer to the characters – a spider crawling on someone’s face, perhaps, or just a look caught in a child’s eye.

Spielberg has often been accused of sentimentality, of sidling away from the darker sides of humanity. Here, Spielberg not only takes a much bleaker view of aliens than in Close Encounters and ET (there are no glowing fingers on these guys), he also takes a very much bleaker view of ordinary people.

After the aliens attack, we see Americans loot, panic and riot. And when a stranger (Tim Robbins) takes Cruise and his daughter under his wing, we see not only a nastily right-wing, survivalist streak below the surface of American life, but also more than a hint of paedophilia. Spielberg seems to have lost his Capra-esque confidence in the Common Man, and this makes his film all the more dark, dangerous and convincing. Be aware, incidentally, that this 12A film is definitely not suitable for children under 12 years old, and may give people much older than that nightmares.

The economical script, which never fails to grip or entertain, is by the up-and-coming Josh Friedman and David Koepp, who did similarly intelligent work on Jurassic Park, The Paper and Stir of Echoes. The excellent, Oscar-worthy camerawork is by Janusz Kaminski, who also shot Schindler's List, Minority Report and Saving Private Ryan. And Spielberg’s genius – not a word I use often, but for once it’s justified – means that the story-telling would be just as clear if you couldn’t understand a word of English.

Spielberg doesn’t trivialise H.G.Wells’s 1898 novel about aliens disrupting the bourgeois normality of Woking. He enriches it with his own concerns and turns it into a parable about the need for men to find the father that is potentially within them. Men, he argues, need to stop being boys, and become real men. It’s a timely message.

Admittedly, Spielberg has approached this theme before – notably in Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park, less notably in Hook – but he has never done so in a movie that’s as full of thrills and spectacle as this.

With Jaws, 30 years ago, the young Spielberg single-handedly invented the Summer blockbuster. It’s good to see that, when the chips are down and many critics are eagerly preparing to write him off, the old Maestro can still show us all how to do it.

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