I love this movie. I saw it three times when it came out, which is strictly a Matrix/Star Wars/LOTR-level number of times to see the same movie in the theater. I had a Netflix copy in my house already in September for another re-view, and when October crept closer I thought "I guess I'll have to return this without watching it, and get a horror movie..." and then I thought "wait a second..."
If you have no idea how the original H.G. Wells story ends, I suppose you shouldn't read beyond the next picture. But I'm disappointed in you, because everybody knows that.
Oh, I kid!
But seriously, really?
And to get the Tom Cruise thing out of the way, yes, he is the organ grinder monkey for a horrible, greedy, destructive cult. But the man can act. There are so many people whose work you can admire when you don't have to deal with them directly -- we hear Jackson Pollack was a hassle to be around, but it doesn't ruin his paintings for you. But actors are up in your face when they're working, and as time goes by more and more famous actors tend to just jolt you right out of the movie because, well, there they are. But because I don't pay enough attention to that weird midget-man's public life, he can still convince me he's who his character is supposed to be, (and I suppose also that he's taller). In this he's Ray Ferrier, Newark dockworker and neglectful divorced dad, and he's great at it.
And, in no particular order, you've got Steven Spielberg, H.G. Wells, director of photography Janusz Kaminski, and Dakota Fanning. Dakota Fanning! She is so my hero for making this movie convincing.
War of the Worlds was written before there was flight, and so the invaders don't fly above us, they walk above us. Huge, three-legged war machines lay waste to the works of humans, killing us and plucking us off the ground like vermin. These monsters are merciless, smart and horrible to look upon: a terrible conglomeration of insect, machine and predatory squid.
And the book was written in 1898, dude! One of the first alien invasion stories ever. Images of the novel's ideas have been created and recreated so many times they go past iconic to downright primal.
Perhaps not as primal as the flying saucer is, which is why the 1953 version opted for creepy floating vehicles instead. But in 2005 they brought back the tripods, and captured their evil magic with style. I've seen dozens of different pictures of those tripods and the image above could have easily looked at home on pulp covers as far back as the 1930's.
The emergence of the first tripod we see is nothing less than a classic scene of scary science fiction. The fact that more people don't run away until it's too late is a wonderful last hurrah for human arrogance -- it's just so unbelievable, they stay and watch.
In the original story, the Martians arrive in huge hollow projectiles fired from massive guns on Mars, (which isn't really flight), and the tripods emerge from the crater. The tripod that comes up in Bayonne, New Jersey here was placed underground before the dawn of man, and just had its pilots delivered via lightning blasts from a strange storm. The first time I saw this movie that premise nagged at me a bit -- how was it that not one of the things was uncovered in millions and millions of years?
But I like the following theory: that the unnamed invaders are actually from Mars, and when their planet started dying they buried the tripods and either time-traveled or suspended-animationed or hung-out-on-some-other-planet until now. (The problem with the last one is then maybe they'd know about biosystems having germs, so forget that one. We don't really know what they were up to. It's cool to have mystery.) Anyway, Earth didn't have what they needed when they buried the tripods but it does now. And the main thing is they're from Mars, because that is so cool.
The story is told through the eyes of one family struggling to survive in the days after the invasion, but in a closer thematic way it's told through the eyes of Ray's daughter Rachel, played by Dakota Fanning. The camera lingers on her face a lot, there are no less than three times her father labors to prevent her from seeing something horrible around her, and best of all, I think we're invited to think this is her telling the story. One shot in particular (in which she looks up and the camera follows her gaze to a row of airborne helicopters) made me believe she would someday be one of the few living witnesses of the invasion, and she'd tell this story to her grandchildren -- how's that for being drawn in by a movie? That's why Dakota Fanning is awesome. She completely makes you believe this crazy crap is actually happening.
Two moments in this movie I love:
Our hero family sees a crowd of people in the distance beset by tripods. The noise made by the crowd is a brilliant piece of sound design. It's difficult to describe, but they're so far away it's one ominous noise, a sort of terrified roar.
This shot, from within a Martian cage. It's about the lady on the right, screaming and looking upward. The bar is blocking it, but she's wearing a modest brooch. She's just some lady who works in an office in the tri-state area somewhere. You know her, you probably worked with her once. Nice enough, but you don't know too much about her, she doesn't get your jokes, you didn't go to her barbecue, and you certainly never thought you'd see her in a paroxysm of raw emotional agony while still dressed in her work clothes. But that's what she was wearing when she got caught up in this nightmare a few days ago -- and this shit is actually happening and it's actually this bad.
Very effective movie.
There's a comic book in which a person with Superman-level powers goes on a colossal murderous rampage in a major city. Musing about the event years later, a character compares it to the the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima, in that it was obliteration coming from a direction nobody was thinking about. It's a wonderful observation on disaster: you worry and worry about what you already know, when the real angel of death has a completely new face. War of the Worlds is great because it is that story, and it happens twice. It happens to us, and then it happens to the Martains. That's why I love it.
I'd be lying if I said you might not find problems with this one. There's a scene in the basement that sags, maybe some deus ex machina stuff to get over, but for me those rough edges have all worn smooth. When I said at the top that I thought "wait a second..." my next thought was "that movie is freakin' scary!"