War of the Worlds
—About this Film
A generation ago, two of Director Stephen Spielberg’s biggest films – Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial – captured the imagination of filmgoers, presenting a hopeful view of aliens from other worlds. The films perhaps provided the cultural motif for what was soon described as “morning in America,” a time of optimism about what the United States had to offer the world.
Another incarnation of three-finger alien is back in Spielberg’s latest foray into the science-fiction genre – a 21st-century computer-generated retelling of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, first published in 1898. Although Spielberg’s War of the Worlds won’t create outbreaks of hysteria as Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio dramatization, one of the film’s strengths is the way it portrays the pandemonium of a military invasion by an alien force.
It is no surprise as the film unfolds that characters first suspect the anarchy results from terrorist attacks, a reflection of how much times have changed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That the film’s action takes shape in New York City and follows a protagonist, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), who receives cargo at a port, also reflects the increased attention to security of U.S. borders.
Yet at its heart, War of the Worlds shows how a broken family struggles to keep from disintegrating. At the outset, Ray receives a weekend visit from his teen-age son, Robbie (Justin Chatwith), who’s in open rebellion, and his 10-year-old daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), as his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her new husband leave on a trip to Boston.
Amid the pandemonium of an alien attack, the worst elements of American behavior emerge – vigilantism, survival of the fittest, lack of concern for others. Indeed, Cruise’s fight to keep his family together involves stealing, murder and at one point he is forced to make a choice between meeting the needs of his son or daughter. Robbie does one of the film’s few selfless acts out of concern for others. Yet we later wonder whether he really acted out of selflessness or reckless disregard for his own safety.
Although a key turning point involves people rallying together against the aliens in a scene reminiscent of Finding Nemo, it is difficult to assess whether Spielberg is suggesting that Americans are less welcoming of others, especially aliens, or whether in the face of tremendous adversity a deep-seated spirit of community will emerge. A more obvious message of the film, however, is that the military might and technological prowess of the world’s only Superpower pales by comparison to the plan of Providence.
Like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, survivors marvel at the planning that has gone into this alien assault. “They must have been planning this for millions of years, before any people lived here,” one character observes.
Despite the presence of big-name actors, the special effects are the true star of the 1 hour and 57 minute film. Yet, unlike Spielberg’s most famous monsters (the shark in Jaws and the semi-truck in Duel), these aliens are not that scary. Look to M. Night Shyamalan's Signs for an example of a similar film where the terror factor is much higher.
Because of the familiarity of this story, the outcome of War of the Worlds may not hold a lot of suspense. (If you aren’t aware of the plot, there’s a hint about the outcome in the opening titles.) Yet there are many fine points along the way, including Morgan Freeman’s excellent narration.
While War of the Worlds provides well-paced roller-coaster action, the film’s message is subject to the interpretations of the viewer to a greater extent than other films. Perhaps it provides an illustration that for all our attempts at security, what’s needed is a little more faith in divine design.
—About this Film