Friday, November 28, 2008

War of the Worlds

2005 *****

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!"


Catfreeek said...

Loved your review, you totally left nothing out. My mind was thinking, "what about the fact that they were already here, underground?" Then, there it was in your review. I probably would have rated this slightly lower and yes, that has to do with the basement scene mostly.

Although, I did really enjoy the realism of this film as well. Again, great review.

AC said...

exceptional review octo. still haven't seen this one.

JPX said...

Excellent review. I would rate this movie slightly less because I despised the son on every level. When he's telling his father, "I have to do this" in response to chasing after the aliens I wanted Cruise to scream, "Shut the fuck up and go with me right now before I knock you into tomorrow!" None of this kid's behavior made any sense. Also, I found it ridiculous that in the face of the end of the world (possibly) they'd still all be bickering over stupidness like assholes. Still, this is an awesome film.

AC, there seems to be some major film holes in your life, how did you possibly miss this?

AC said...

ever since the anti-psychiatry rant i've boycotted tom cruise movies. i know it hurts me more than it hurts him, but still.

Octopunk said...

JPX & Freeek: I get what you say. I think part of the problem with being Spielberg is that you have to make your movies so sweeping. Because this movie is about aliens but also 9/11 and war in general, the son's shtick has to be ill-advised personal outrage because that's a facet of it all. But this time I was too ready to have him out of the picture because I like the vibe when it's just Cruise and Fanning together.


Similarly, the scene in the basement has to end with Cruise killing Tim Robbins because that's an aspect of it all, too. After Cruise weeps to see humans turn on each other in order to steal their car, he's got to do the same yatta yatta. Since the stint in the basement is so long, you'd think maybe he'd get to it faster.

I waffled on giving this 5 vs. 4 1/2 stars. It does have flaws, and 5 stars usually means nothing but perfect, but I just had such a good time with it this viewing.

AC, that's exactly the kind of thing a pseudo-scientist like you would say.

DCD said...

I'm avoiding reading the review and comments because, like AC, I've been on an anti-Cruise run for awhile.

Clearly, I will have to give that up to watch this flick.

AC said...

octo, me personally, i'm less of a "pseudoscientist" and more of a "crime against humanity," but you already knew that.

i know, dcd, i'm so torn! "must boycott tom cruise" conflicting with "must watch great scifi movies." an ethical dilemma worthy of star trek TOS. what would kirk do?

Octopunk said...

Honestly I really can't begrudge anyone on their decision to boycott Tom Cruise.

Click here for a short video of him dancing on BET during his MI3 promotional tour. He really has no idea how many black people he's making laugh at him forever and ever.

DCD said...

OMG! I just watched that video - PAINFULLY HILARIOUS!!

Landshark said...

Hey, I still love Woody Allen movies, and he slept with his freaking 16 year old step-daughter. Then divorced her mom and married the daughter. Tom Cruise has nothing on him.

Anyway, I'm in the camp that saw War as a ***** movie for the first 2/3 or so, but then was let down by the rushed feeling of the end. Still very worth seeing though, and octo covers the good stuff really well.

Landshark said...

Also, in the video of him dancing, he's doing a bit there from his Tropic Thunder character: a fat bald corporate douche who dances to hip hop. They're definitely laughing with him in that clip.

How the F did I become the Tom Cruise defense society?

Octopunk said...

The clip I linked to posted on YouTube last October, but it originates from spring 2006, so my money is that the TT character sprang from this incident, not the other way around.