THE WAR OF SUMMER SEASON HAS BEEN WON
My introduction the history of "War of the Worlds" began back in high school shortly before I read the inspirational novel by H.G. Wells for the first time. Telling us the amusing story about how late-tuning listeners to the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles (no relation) believed Earth was really under attack, my 11th grade teacher played the broadcast in its entirety for the class to hear.
When listening to a story told on radio you must use your imagination to visualize the looming alien invasion. Welles' rendition was effective. That a radio broadcast was able to dupe a nation of listeners was plausible because it sounded so realistic.
Later came the dated 1953 movie which still required audiences to use their imaginations as special effects at the time weren't exactly topnotch or even remotely comparable to Industrial Light and Magic. Now we have Steven Spielberg's 2005 remake, and it's entrancing.
When the film opens after a brief narration by Morgan Freeman, our hero Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is operating the cranes down at the loading docks. His shift ends with him anxiously awaiting the arrival of his kids, Robbie and Rachel (Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning), for the duration of his weekend custody.
But before they can settle down a massive lightning storm draws out the town's curious citizens; gazing ominously at the gray skies. Soon, earthquakes pull the ground apart and three-legged machines known as tripods resurrect above the city and begin blasting people with their death rays - triggering the first of many exciting cat-and-mouse chase sequences in the movie, all of which are eerily convincing.
There's little time for explanations as the aliens from some other planet begin their assault - or as the paranoid survivalist played by Tim Robbins calls it: extermination.
For an immature divorced father of two who keeps a car engine block on the kitchen table, Ray quickly goes into defensive mode, grabbing his children for a flight out of town. Where, exactly, do they plan to go? We're not sure. Ray isn't sure, and that's the genius of the film. What can they do?
When the aliens have the better firepower the only thing you can do is run. Ray's son Robbie doesn't understand this and constantly rebels against his father's authority in what is already being called a one-dimensional relationship. Perhaps these critics are unaware that there simply isn't time for bonding or patching things up.
Making matters more urgent is young Rachel played indispensably by the brilliant Dakota Fanning. Spending most of her onscreen time screaming or crying, Fanning accurately portrays how a young lost 10-year-old girl would react to the sights of people being vaporized and her brother threatening to disband into the smoke and flames tired of running away when he thinks he can fight them along side the military.
Tanks are dispatched to attack the tripods and jets cut through the air at speeds greater than sound creating sonic booms above legions of people running away from the tripods' death rays. So much enthrallment in one frame there is, but as usual there is no time to appreciate it because Ray and his kids are always on the move.
"War of the Worlds" is the type of movie that could have easily turned sour but a veteran like Spielberg would have no such thing happen to his action-packed blockbuster. Not only are the special effects as good as it gets (you actually believe the actors are running from something other than a blue screen) but the daunting atmosphere inspires actual fear that has been absent in recent disaster movies such as "The Day After Tomorrow." What unfolds during the scene where Rachel goes into the woods to use the bathroom is too effective for words to describe. Same for the scene where the van Ray steals comes under attack from the people outside with no other vehicle to seek refuge in. And the one where hoards of people desperately try to board a ferry that will probably be doomed anyway.
I am simply perplexed by some of the harsh criticism "War of the Worlds" has already garnered despite a mostly positive consensus on opening night. More than a fair share of critics report that the film's climax is a disappointment, which can only be possibly true for those who've never seen the original film or read Wells' novel. I for one find a certain level of genius behind the story's motive and it's played out faithfully.
Roger Ebert has written a nasty 2-star review predictably criticizing the structure of the aliens. He had this problem with "Independence Day," another movie about an alien invasion that's incredibly fun to experience when you stop asking "why" - which Ebert does in every paragraph of his "War of the Worlds" review. Yes, perhaps in some movies aliens may look like impractical tripods while in others they can be disabled for failing to update their McAfee subscription.
Whether the aliens themselves look convincing depends on your own credibility test. Regardless, if aliens do ever show up to invade our planet I doubt we'll be much concerned with what they look like.
"War of the Worlds" has everything you should expect from a summer blockbuster: first-rate special effects, a thrilling alien invasion and an inner story that manages to capture the spirit of human panic when inescapable danger is approaching. Spielberg has done it again.
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