In War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg’s mega-budget retelling of the HG Wells classic novella, Tom Cruise plays a New Jersey dockworker named Ray Ferrier. Divorced from his wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), and estranged from their two children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), Ray is taking care of the kids for a weekend while his ex and her new beau are off to Boston. Right from the start, things between Ray and the kids go bad.
When a freak lightning storm occurs, bringing forth hidden alien invaders intent on wiping out the Earth, the family weekend gets a whole lot worse. Managing to find the one operating vehicle in what is left of his neighborhood – Ray grabs the kids and heads off north in the hopes of reaching Mary Ann in Boston. Along the way, he attempts to reconcile with his children while fighting to keep them alive amidst the human genocide.
The most popular of the previous versions of War of the Worlds have had welcome subtext, having been released during heightened times of global trepidation: Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast arrived prior to World War II, and the 1953 feature film was released during the Cold War.
Spielberg’s take, naturally, draws parallels to both 9/11 and the current War on Terrorism. This adds much-needed tension to the proceedings, particularly in the first hour’s impressive set pieces. A new approach to the story material, telling the story from the point of view of an everyday person who is only out to save his family, not the planet, is also a welcome change.
There is only one problem: the story and characters built around the approach and allegories are substandard. Cruise tries hard to make us care about Ray, but there isn’t enough in David Koepp and Josh Friedman’s screenplay for him to accomplish that. Ray is supposed to be a flawed but still likeable guy. But thanks to the script, Ray comes off as a smug jerk, patriarch to two really maddening children (Chatwin and Fanning’s grating performances don’t help matters any).
The dramatic fireworks between Ray and the children are both forced and clichd, the main story peters out as it progresses, and the conclusion is, without a doubt, the single worst ending for any Spielberg-directed feature to date.
An inferior script from Koepp and Friedman I can understand. But halfhearted directing from Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, I can neither understand nor accept. Aforementioned set pieces aside, Spielberg’s directing is missing his usual focus, skill, heart or urgency. Instead of something fresh, we get a greatest career hits package: the human awe of initial alien contact from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the ominous, claustrophobic terror of Jurassic Park or Jaws, the random and unexpected violence of Saving Private Ryan or the genocidal atmosphere from Schindler’s List, all are borrowed from here, but rarely put to good use.
It’s been 14 years since Steven Spielberg released a film that I truly disliked, and that film was the 1991 nightmare Hook. While this wasn’t in the same league, I did find this War to be a bit of a snore.