Friday, December 16, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.18: Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 2005’s War of the Worlds.

Grade: 81 (B+)

What’s more frustrating: a bad movie, or a good movie that could have been a great one? Steven Spielberg has had his share of duds (1941, Always, Hook), but his 2005 sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds has wrongfully been labeled by some (including, initially, me) as one of his weakest films. For the first 110 minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime, the film successfully combines Spielberg’s whiz-bang action mastery with the harrowing intensity of his darkest works. And then, in the final scene, everything goes wrong.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a working-class dockworker (more on that later) and a lousy father to his two children, teenaged Robby (Justin Chatwin) and pre-teen Rachel (Dakota Fanning). When his ex-wife drops the two off for the weekend, they’re both visibly less than thrilled. That’s the least of their problems: strange things are happening in New York, from bizarre storms to machines breaking down. As it turns out, aliens are invading, and they’re not exactly the friendly aliens of Spielberg’s past: extermination of the human race is their goal. Ray’s paternal instincts kick in as he’s forced to fend for his children’s lives, and his own.

It’s important to get this out of the way: Tom Cruise is miscast. He’s a fine actor and a dynamic presence (I won’t hear otherwise), but casting him as a working-class hero strains credibility, to say the least. His movie-star good looks and megawatt smile immediately make him stick out like a sore thumb, and the low-class clothes make him look like he’s playing dress up. His character’s conflict between his more privileged ex-wife and children is strong, but it has to work through that he’s out of place. Tom Cruise is, however, completely credible as a lousy father, the more important of the character traits, and as soon as the mayhem sets in and his working class background is no longer a visible flaw.

There’s two immediate influences in Spielberg’s update, aside from the old monster movies: Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. The film’s action and suspense scenes have the same thrilling qualities that Spielberg mastered thirty years before in Jaws, the slow lead-in to the aliens reveal and the stalking scenes have the same Hitchcockian qualities, and the score takes on a “Bernard Herrmann doing Godzilla” tone. Kubrick, meanwhile, shows up in the bizarre imagery (lighting hitting the same spot thirty times, wind blowing towards a storm, a field of bloody roots/veins), harrowing intensity, and look at the possibility of mankind’s extinction. Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and visual storytelling, combined with his impeccable blending of CGI with real effects, makes for a thrilling ride.

The film hearkens back to more “serious” Spielberg works like Schindler’s  List and Saving Private Ryan as men and women are mercilessly cut down by a cold, calculating alien race that has decided humanity is not worth keeping around. As their advanced weapons hit people, they explode into ash. And what’s worse, mankind’s advanced weaponry is of no use in this instance. Humanity is completely helpless, wandering the streets and gossiping about how other nations took down the UFOs, as if they could (Schindler’s List again).

There’s a new historical context to these situations: the film takes place (at first) in New York, only a few years after the 9/11 attacks. When crazy things start to happen, citizens speculate on whether or not there are terrorists responsible. The film looks at a force far more powerful and terrifying, but it truly captures the horror of a helpless America running for their lives in the wake of an all-powerful enemy. This isn’t some braindead, jingoistic thrill-ride a la Independence Day. The consequences are real and horrifying, and there’s little laughing along the way. The film also shows how men and women abandon their principles in order to survive: Cruise and his family have one of the only working vehicles around, and when they find a large crowd of people, they’re overcome. These men and women have no purpose anymore, other than survival. They’re more of Spielberg’s “lost boys”, wandering a fallen world.

Spielberg’s films are filled with sympathetic father-child relationships, but rarely has a father’s respect been as hard-won as Cruise’s. Ray is a jerk to his kids and his ex-wife (who, in traditional Spielbergian fashion, seems far more sympathetic). He doesn’t know much about his kids and is frequently short with them. His young daughter still has some admiration for him and tries to mediate between him and his son. His son, on the other hand, is a moody teenager who clearly hates his father (it even goes so far to have him wear a Red Sox cap just to annoy his Yankees-fan father). Their difficult conversations know that, Hook aside, Spielberg knows how to show conflict between fathers and sons.

As the family runs, the teenaged Robby is more help to young Rachel than their father is. As Rachel begins to grow claustrophobic and starts to panic, Ray doesn’t know how to handle it, and Robby has to calm her down. As time goes on, however, Robby starts to waiver. He wants to get back at the invaders, never mind that Ray tells him it’s no good. Why should he listen to his father? His paternal instincts have kicked in way too late for Robby’s sake, and his son is willing to run off without him or Rachel in order to get away from his father. Ray has some grudging admiration of some of Robby’s heroic instincts, but he knows that if Robby tries to fight back he’ll get killed. He pleads with his son, tells him he loves him. It’s no use: “You need to let me go” Robby says, and over the hill, towards oblivion he goes. This will later lead to the film’s greatest flaw, but at the moment it seems to show Spielberg’s maturation, as Robby unquestionably dies because his father couldn’t save him.
Ray now has to watch after Rachel himself. He finds help, as far as he knows, in Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), another survivor. But surviving isn’t what Harlan wants to do. He’s convinced that a human resistance can form and defeat the aliens, never mind that it’s been no use so far. He wants to take them by surprise. Ray wants nothing to do with it, and only wants to hide so he can save his daughter. Harlan has big plans, but plans in Spielberg films never go well. It doesn’t help that he’s completely out of his mind. The smallest detail could get them spotted by aliens, and he’s screaming about how occupations never last and how we have the home advantage. Ray is forced to make a decision: save  himself and Rachel, or let Harlan live. The choice is clear.

It’s a brilliant look at what mankind is willing to do to survive throughout, and in the end, the aliens are not killed by advanced weaponry, but through luck. They’re not used to the bacteria of Earth, and something as simple as a cold takes them down. The uncontrollable aspects of life win out again, and the day is saved because of it. But Spielberg tries to control too much in the film’s ending: Ray and Rachel make their way to Boston and find Rachel’s mother, alive. She thanks his for taking care of her, but the reminder of what happened to Robby will no doubt leave a sense of loss in their survival. Inexplicably, Robby shows up, very much alive, and even hugs the father he claimed to hate. It’s another Spielbergian ending that reunites broken families, but it’s far too simplistic and forced a happy ending for an often tragic film, and another botched ending to an otherwise brilliant movie.


December 17: Munich
December 18: Lackluster sequel time with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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