July 01, 2005

War of the Worlds

Directed by Steven Spielberg Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto and Tim Robbins

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

H.G. Wells’s 1898 alien-invasion classic War of the Worlds is actually a disguised cautionary tale about British imperialism. Orson Welles’s notorious 1938 radio adaptation – which generated mass hysteria during its broadcast – is also significant for inspiring future demagogues to prey on public fears with the Cold War and the War on Terrorism. The story itself should still prove timeless more than a century later, as American economic/political/military power now looms large over the rest of the planet. But the involvement of Hollywood’s two most bankable names guarantees that the latest treatment will be populist rather than politically relevant like Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s take on War of the Worlds certainly is a huge improvement over the embarrassingly awful 1952 movie adaptation by Byron Haskin. But if they’re not making this as a comment on American imperialism, then what’s the point? The only politically charged element in the entire film is the passing “Is that the terrorist?” which characters mutter during an alien attack. Certainly, it doesn’t have the McCarthyism implications of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or a kick-ass president who’d hop in a fighter jet himself like in Independence Day. Perhaps this is Cruise’s The Passion of the Christ-ish ode to his religion, especially since John Travolta’s Scientology epic Battlefield Earth has failed so miserably at making anyone a believer.

In between special effects, screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp stuff a soap-operatic broken-family subplot involving Cruise’s all-American dad and his estranged/on-visitation kids played by Nanaimoian Justin Chatwin and young-Drew Barrymore-esque Dakota Fanning. (Wait a minute. Cruise actually didn’t object to all the Freudian/Jungian psychobabble?) While Haskin’s version considerably dumbed down scientific aspects of the story, Spielberg’s leaves too much unexplained and demands familiarity with one of the previous treatments.

Fans of Spielberg may be eager to see his take on extra terrestrials who aren’t friendly or wanting to call home, but he has already done this kind of disaster stuff before with dinosaurs and sharks. The director clearly could have made this film in his sleep, which is probably what he ended up doing. Nowadays he is investing most of his energy in prestige projects like The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can rather than silly summer blockbusters like this. His War of the Worlds not only lacks a discernable stylistic stamp, there are also a few instances where he inexplicably pays homage to Haskin’s totally forgettable version.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.