Main cast: Tom Cruise (Ray Ferrier), Dakota Fanning (Rachel Ferrier), Justin Chatwin (Robbie Ferrier), Tim Robbins (Ogilvy), Miranda Otto (Mary Ann), and Morgan Freeman (Narrator)
Director: Steven Spielberg
I’m afraid Steven Spielberg’s ambition to make every movie of his a parable of sorts to some very important real life event is too ambitious for his ability as a director and the abilities of his cast combined in War of the Worlds. From its patronizing start which has Morgan Freeman, Hollywood’s ideal of God, lecturing people about the way we are living our lives (bad!) and to the subsequent scenes of war monuments and other scenes reminding us that war is bad (bad!), Mr Spielberg wants to me understand that while this movie is released as a summer blockbuster to make him very, very rich, he wants me to remember that he’s doing this not for fun. He has a very important message to make.
I don’t think the message is that Xenu is coming to save us all, which makes this movie amusing only because Tom Cruise is using it (and his manufactured relationship with Katie Holmes) as a platform to preach Scientology. How on earth do we get from aliens are coming to kill us all to them coming to save us all? Only in Hollywood, people.
Based loosely on HG Wells’s novel of the same name (which means the movie uses the same alien tripod designs as well as the method of demise of the aliens), this movie however introduces several key characters for me to root. Ray Ferrier is a middle-class guy whose middle-classness will be shoved down my throat from the contrast of his ex-wife Mary Ann’s lifestyle to Ray’s messy home. Mary Ann drops off the kids at Ray so that she and her new husband can travel to Boston to visit her parents. Never one lacking in subtlety, this movie hammers home the fact that Ray is a hero-to-be by having Mary Ann telling Ray in a manner that the audience can’t miss to take care of the kids.
So when the alien tripods erupt from the ground to zap people and buildings to dust when they are not sucking out people’s blood to spray the world like a giant Marilyn Manson concert, Ray has to steer the only working car in the area (damn, those solenoids are so powerful, I tell you) to take the kids to safety in Boston. It’s not easy when the kids in question are two of the most obnoxious creatures I’ve encountered on big screen. Look, I know those kids have it rough over the divorce, but when aliens are out to get everybody, excuse me if I’m not too heartbroken over Rachel running off just because she wants to pee alone or Robbie wanting to be a hero at the expense of his sister’s well-being. It’s not about family loyalty, mind you, I’m talking about basic sense of survival. When monsters are attacking, you run the hell for your life. You don’t waste time arguing with your father over who’s boss even when the aliens are dangerously close on your hindquarters.
The script wants to milk dry the sentimental anguish I’m supposed to feel by having Rachel and Robbie screaming and deliberately running off to do stupid things when all poor Ray wants to do is to see them safe. I don’t think I’m supposed to want so longingly to see that snotty bitch brat Rachel sucked dry of blood or that idiotic loser Robbie crushed under the wheel of a tank, but feel these bloodthirsty yearnings I do. I do feel sorry for Ray who is trying so hard to keep things together for his family when he’s close to a nervous breakdown but I think I’ll be cheering him on if he kicks the kids to the curb and drives off into the sunset on his own. In trying to create some internal conflicts, the movie ends up making the children more terrifying to deal with than the aliens. While I’m at it, let me say that Dakota Fanning must be possessed by the spirit of Queen Victoria or something. She acts like the mother-in-law from hell when she’s supposed to be this sweet little daughter. Give me the aliens, I tell you, than these creepy children from hell. Tom Cruise is a limited actor and he is from that school of method acting where when gnashing your teeth is a great multipurpose way to show people that you are angry, worried, frustrated, and happy, but those two obnoxious children make Ray come off like a sweet, sweet man in comparison. As for Tim Robbins’s overacted appearance in this movie, the least said of him, the better.
Because the children are so unlikable and obnoxious and they create all those damned problems for Ray non-stop from start from finish, this movie rings hollow with me. I feel frustrated for Ray and sometimes I am so irritated by the latest monstrous stupidity of Robbie or Rachel that I would have cheerfully choked them with my own hands, but I never feel any sense of bittersweet “Oh, humans are so strong, Mr Spielberg is right; hand me my aspirins honey, my heart is aching!” feelings that Mr Spielberg is waiting with a box of Kleenex in his hand for me to be overcome by. The unbelievably contrived reunion at the end is a typical example of how Mr Spielberg often sabotages his movies by being unable to resist putting happy endings to make his audience happy even when the happy ending makes no freaking sense. But that’s nothing compared to the whole movie which hammers down my throat again and again how a father will go to desperate lengths to protect his children, while at the same time making sure that the children in question are so obnoxiously dim-witted and impetuous that they could prompt people to vote for the one-couple one-child law to take place in their country.
There are some powerful scenes in this movie, such as the events leading to Ray’s confrontation with the crazy Ogilvy, but there are too many things that War of the Worlds botches up so painfully for it to work with me. The movie feels like it is something Mr Spielberg is trying to do to recreate the magic of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, perhaps, but the movie tries too hard to be so many things at once – a patriotic parable, a blockbuster, an alien movie, a tragedy, a condescending tale of “People be strong!” yammering – without trying to do well at any of them. The action rings hollow, there are plot holes galore (why are sophisticated aliens using flexible stroboscopes to peek into buildings?) unless I ignore the Narrator at the beginning telling me that the movie is set in the twenty-first century and pretend that it’s set in the 1950s instead, and the ending doesn’t resonate. Mr Spielberg amps up the misanthropy in the movie only to attempt to redeem every crappy thing inflicted on Ray with a warm hug.
As a soulless movie more loud than anything else, War of the Worlds is only of use as an example of how a director can try to do too much and ruin a movie. At least Independence Day doesn’t pretend to be more important than it really is and shove this belief down the throat of its audience, I suppose, and good heavens, and manages to be actually entertaining in the process!