Spielberg? much-maligned SF summer blockbuster arrives on a pulsating 2-disc DVD edition just in time for all those Christmas stockings. Many critics – presumably a bit peeved because they couldn? see the movie at an advance screening ahead of all the plebs – grizzled and grumbled about WAR OF THE WORLDS. ?t? not spectacular enough!?they complained (conveniently forgetting the hundreds of column inches they?e filled year after year bemoaning the over-reliance of spectacle in modern action movies to the detriment of things like plot and character). ?t? too mawkishly sentimental!?they blubbered, ignorant of the fact that – save one agonising moment – it actually isn?. Spielberg, who loves SF movies as much as me (and that? a lot) is clearly extremely familiar with the cliches of the ?hey come to us and invade?genre of SF film-making. Keen to avoid making INDEPENDENCE DAY PART TWO Spielberg instead crafted – courtesy of a smart script by David Koepp – a much more intimate, focussed invasion Earth story. WAR OF THE WORLDS is like SIGNS with the roof off; it? the story of one man and his family, victims just like everyone else, battling to stay alive in the face of something inexplicable, incomprehensible, unstoppable.
Updating the Victorian setting of HG Wells? landmark novel was an obvious necessity but much of the structure of the narrative is largely the same. Some of the mechanics are different – the alien tripods have been buried underground for thousands of years and their pilots are transported to Earth in lightning bolts – but the storyline is the same as it ever was. Cruise plays loser-in-life Ray Ferrier, a lowly New York dock worker who? not exactly enjoying quality time with Rachel and Robbie, the children from his failed marriage. He doesn? understand his kids, they don? want to understand him. But when the skies turn dark and lightning crackles down from the sky, giant lumbering three-legged machines crash out of the ground and start to incinerate everything in their path. Ray? natural paternal instincts kick in as he commandeers the only working vehicle in New York and he?l stop at nothing to save his family as civilisation crumbles under a breathlessly-brutal attack from ruthless aliens intent on the absolute extermination of humankind.
They key word during the making of WAR OF THE WORLDS was ?yper-reality?and the edgy, almost documentary style of the film-making makes this about as realistic an SF experience as you can imagine. The film is grainy, gritty, in-yer-face. Ray? world is cheap and nasty and grey and when it crumbles it falls like a pack of cards. Ray is no hero figure, he doesn? have the answers. He? just a man who manages to keep one step ahead of the aliens and when the time comes, he can be just as ruthless as them. At only one point in the film does Ray seem like a potential saviour, and that? right at the end of the film when he finally, more by accident than design, manages to bring down an alien tripod as he battles to free his shell-shocked daughter from their tentacled clutches.
WAR OF THE WORLDS is disturbing and unsettling, humanity routed with a realism we?e not seen before in the movies. Spielberg? tripods are great clunking monstrosities and the death they wield is quite genuinely terrifying, human flesh vaporised, inorganic matter carried away in the breeze. This is taut, economic film-making – the whole film was shot in under 90 days – but Spielberg still manages to create images which will live long in the memory. A burning train flashes through a railroad intersection, humans fleeing down a hill systematically mown down by advancing Tripods, the off-screen ?ar of the worlds?as the army trundles into action, bodies floating down the river. By concentrating on the plight of Ray and his family, the audience is constantly wrong-footed as so much of the death and devastation takes place off-screen and we?e never aware exactly what? going on on the other side of the world. We don? need to see familiar land-marks blown to smithereens in the name of mindless spectacle; the film invites us to understand that this devastation is happening everywhere and that no-one is safe and there? nowhere to hide. Spielberg? one concession to his mawkish tendencies appears right at the end of the film when he just can? resist a happy ending, even in the face of overwhelming logic. But it? the one disappointment in a classy, visceral movie that loses one of its power in its translation to the home entertainment format. Quite possibly the film of the year.
THE DISCS: With a classy DTS soundtrack this movie just thunders out of your speakers and pitces you right in the middle of the pandemonium. Spielberg is as commentary-phobic as ever (there? no track at all) but disc two offers up a wealth of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage which detail the production of the movie in intimate detail, examining the history of Wells and his book, pre-visualisation of the movie, the production itself and finally post-production,. Exhaustive and fascinating.