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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

War Of The Worlds

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Judy Thorburn

War Of The Worlds

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SPIELBERG’S “WAR OF THE WORLDS” IS CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE FLAWED KIND

Steven Spielberg’s updated version of War of the Worlds is one of those movies that I was waiting for with high expectations.  I figured that since Spielberg, one of our most renowned directors, was the man who gave us science fiction blockbusters E.T., Minority Report, A.I. and my favorite, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was ready for an interesting cinematic journey that would keep me mesmerized until the very end. Spielberg said he wanted to get away from “good” aliens and make a more terrifying excursion into the darker side. He’s definitely done that. But I was hoping he would knock my socks off the way Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day did, which also centered on an alien invasion of Earth.  But, no! By the time WOTW ended, I was reminiscing about George Pal’s memorable 1953 version.

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This storyline has Tom Cruise, re-united with his Minority Report director, playing Ray Ferrier, a shipyard crane operator and irresponsible divorced father of two who is stuck with his kids at his house in New Jersey, while their pregnant mom (Miranda Otto) and stepfather head to Boston to visit their grandparents. Rebellious son Robbie (Justin Chatwin, who strongly resembles a young Cruise) is angry with the Dad he hardly sees, and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning), has other issues. But, when the earth suddenly comes under attack from huge tripod looking alien fighting machines that were supposedly buried for millions of years, Ray is faced with responsibilities he never expected and the highest parental duty – that of protecting his children.

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For the first half hour I was a happy camper, seized by the tension and gripping set up.  Everything was in place; giving us hints of something brewing that is not of this world such as freakish electrical storms and TV news reporting about other strange weather conditions and earthquakes wreaking havoc all over the globe.  I was indeed squirming in my seat and terrified as I watched the ground break apart, the tripods make their initial appearance and raise up to start their devastating attack on earth, destroying everything in their path, and vaporizing humans trying to flee. Yet, are we to believe that the aliens used lightning as a means to travel down into their underground machines?  I prefer the more credible arrival via meteor from the old version.

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The special effects from the ILM wizards are superb and dazzling.  Loyal Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) camera work is, as usual, fabulous. The marvelous set design and lighting are all excellent, too. Yes, technically, this film is a great accomplishment.  But, I believe special effects are supposed to complement and be driven by the story, which should not be filled with flaws or at times cheesy, major problems with this script.

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Instead of experiencing an all out War between our military forces and the aliens, the focus is on Cruise as we follow him and his kids constantly escaping the attacks miraculously by the skin of their teeth, running and hiding from one place to another for safety. Eventually after his son disappears wanting to get closer to a military attack (why, I’ll never know!), Ray has to fight off crowds of panic stricken fellow humans, before he and Rachel are given refuge in the basement home of Ogilvy, a mentally imbalanced ambulance driver, played a bit over the top by Tim Robbins.

At numerous times, the audience including myself reacted with laughter at the ridiculous inclusions. For example, while devastation is going on everywhere we suddenly hear Tony Bennett singing “If I Ruled The World”. How hokey is that?  When we do see the actual creatures, the pilots who control those huge tripods, they are somehow interested in looking at photos or playing with a bike. This is from a civilization that has been watching us, like under a microscope, for ages and planning an invasion. Certainly this brings up the question as to why they hadn’t a clue to what would eventually be their downfall. I don’t want to spoil it, if you don’t already know the outcome, which is carried over from the original book by HG Wells, subsequent 1938 Orson Wells radio presentation, and the 1953 movie adaptation. Also, why are people being vaporized left and right when the aliens need our blood to nourish the “red weeds” they are using to populate our planet?  Talk about inconsistencies! I am sorry to say there are many.

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Spielberg keeps a steady pace and as usual does his best to manipulate audiences with sentimental interactions, a schmaltzy element that has always irked me about his films. Cruise delivers a strong performance and continuously proves why he is one of our most charismatic, talented actors around. We know ten-year-old Fanning is an amazing actress, but she spends most of her time screaming at high decibels. If you blink you might miss cameos by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the 1953 film, during the “unbelievable” re-union scene that takes place in Boston at the end.

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Granted, WOTW is a striking looking film with tense moments that is essentially another summer alien/disaster flick.  I was half-heartedly entertained.  With Spielberg remaking a classic, I was hoping for something earth shattering and groundbreaking. Mind you, the invading aliens do just that. Unfortunately, Spielberg doesn’t.  He blew his chance. That’s a shame.