“Across the gulf of space…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” Hey, don’t say L. Ron Hubbard didn’t try to warn us. At any rate, Spielberg’s take on War of the Worlds is a gritty, eye-popping ride at first, but ultimately ends up being a disappointing affair. In short, it too often abandons the eponymous conflict for pained bouts of family melodrama and lots of Signs-like crashing about in a basement.
I’m aggravated by this film more than most, because from the lightning storm in the first fifteen minutes to the incident at the Hudson River ferry about halfway in, War showed flashes of amazing promise at times. With their introduction from below and their commence-the-killing foghorns, the tripods were spindly alien nightmares, just as they should be. Some of the humanity adrift sequences didn’t make much sense (Why do the news crew cannibalizing the downed plane act starved 12 hours into Day 1 of the attack? How could everything else be picked over by then?), but I particularly liked the swarm of panic and rage surrounding the sight of the Cruise family’s working van. And, while using blatant and Dubyaesque terror, terror, terror, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 imagery seems like something of an easy shortcut (and how was that “missing persons” board near the ferry created so quickly, in such a random place?), it still helped augment the apocalyptic gloom that an adapation of War of the Worlds needs front-and-center.
But, alas, amidst all this armageddon, we’re forced to take multiple timeouts so that Tom Cruise and his kids can work out their unresolved family issues. You have to expect some of this in a Spielberg movie, sure, but it still seems like filler, pretty much every time. And it seriously detracts from the terror War is trying to invoke when one starts counting the character beats until the unavoidable group hug. Moreover, when we get to the interminable basement of Crazy-Eyez Robbins, the film just stops dead. (I know there was a similar sequence in the 1953 George Pal film, but frankly I don’t remember enough to compare the two.) After all the rabid, contagious fear of teeming, ant-like humanity that permeates the first hour, why would we want to watch Cruise, Robbins, and Fanning play hide-and-seek for twenty minutes with that Abyss-like tentacle? (Particularly given that we saw Cruise already do this with the ID spiders in Minority Report.) As a result, by the time Team Cruise gets to (a surprisingly undamaged) Boston for the cathartic group hug, I’d pretty much checked out. Unfortunately, despite a captivating first hour, War of the Worlds eventually bogs down into quagmire.