Tuesday, July 12

"Is it the terrorists!?"

That's what Ray Ferrier's kids want to know, when all hell breaks loose in their New Jersey neighborhood after the alien invasion arives in War of the Worlds. Ultimately, they'll wish it was so simple.

Jamie, Brian and I went to see Spielberg's tense thriller on Friday night. While critical reaction has been mixed, I thought the movie succeeded in its way, but it is definitely not light fare. If world news has you looking for a light-hearted romp, do not see this movie. On the other hand, do go if you would be cheered up by the thought that -- whatever their nefarious plans -- at least Al Qaeda isn't bent on exterminating mankind.

Most of War is incredibly anxious and claustrophobic. The look is Spielbergian -- hints of A.I. or Minority Report -- but far darker. (I thought a breath-stopping basement scene was something of an homage to 2002's Signs.) The director also uses ominous sound effects to create palpable tension and discomfort. There's plenty of spectacular action -- unfortunately, it's just plain ghastly -- alien tripods as grim reapers. They mow down the fleeing citizenry with methodical dispatch. These scenes bear no hint of the traditional irony of sci-fi spoofs like Mars Attacks or Independence Day. The result is more like a true horror flick. As such, the Hollywood-ish ending comes as a relief -- albeit an incongruous one -- to the unremitting sensual assault.

I found myself wondering how closely the script hew to the 1898 novel. (Considered reading the original over the Fourth, but couldn't bring myself to wade through the Victorian narrative.) Turns out, many iconic elements -- from tripods to red weeds to a certain gruesome detail -- do closely parallel Wells' book. However, the kids -- Dakota Fanning (who wasn't that bad) and Justin Chatwin -- were a modern scriptwriter's invention. They help propel Ray's headlong race across the ruined American countryside. Filmgoers cling to this family dynamic as a device that humanizes a desperately inhuman film, but in the end it fails to live up to our emotional needs. The rest of the movie conjures such a maelstrom of destruction that the modest triumphs of a few central characters pale by comparison.

So I guess I'm as conflicted as most other reviewers. As craft filmmaking, WotW grips you and takes you on a very stressful roller-coaster ride. I can appreciate that experience, but it's hard to say I "enjoyed" it -- except for the part at the end when I "escaped" into reality, where only 50-odd people die in London bombings.