No War is Worth the Worlds

I can’t sleep, I’m sunburned, and I’m angry at Steven Spielberg’s misleadingly solid filmography for, well, misleading my family into investing three hours and 25 dollars in War of the Worlds on Sunday night.

If you haven’t seen the film, please don’t read any further, because I’m on a mission from God and Country. I’m going to try my best to discourage you from wasting your time and money. If you dare risk persuasion, please read on, but really, I wish someone had grabbed my arm before entering that dark vortex of dismal upcoming attractions (yes, even the Chocolate Factory seemed lame), looked into my eyes, and told me I should really go rent Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which I still haven’t seen) instead.

A quick note before I get carried away: Prior to viewing this film, I still had not been exposed to H.G. Wells’ or Orson Welles’ versions of War of the Worlds apart the general details, which I probably jotted down in the radio history section of a college midterm. I realize this is ignorance, the equivalent to going into a Harry Potter movie or Cold Mountain blind to the literary genius on which the film is based. I have no excuse except intellectual laziness and I feel like I’m slighting Wells because now that I’ve seen Spielberg’s circus, I have no interest whatsoever in experiencing anything with the words "war" and "worlds" in the title. Call me a pacifist, but I’d prefer to just wait for the aliens to invade so I can see for myself.

Speaking of the aliens. Ebert and Roper, whose antics were all over the telly when we got back home from the movie, were debating the authenticity of the tripod structure of the alien contraptions. Ebert hated the tripods, thought they were fake and unstable. Roper totally bought it; the tripods rocked his boat. After some deliberation with my dad, I had to side with Ebert, who actually gave the film two thumbs down. I gave the film one thumb down, a boo, a frown, and another thumb further down. I don’t know why Roper was so high, maybe because the tripods evoke unrestrained nostalgia in anyone who has revisited the old Star Wars movies, aka “The Original Trilogy” in the months following The Revenge of the Sith. The tripods looked like those giant walking Empire robotic…um, things, that were prominent in Empire Strikes Back. Don’t doubt it. They were identical in awkward movement, high-pitched noises, and artillery. I was expecting Chewbacca to pop up right behind Tommy’s frightened eyes and make his noise to make him feel better, but instead we got Dakota Fanning, who never could decide whether she wanted to be North or South. In this turn in her career, she veers towards the South, because War of the Worlds is not just bad. It’s borrowed, which makes it even worse. And I thought popular music was originality devoid. I’m sure any better-educated movie nerd could make a more intriguing assessment of this disaster, but until I get that research grant for the website, I’m gonna have to rely on the limited reference section in my brain.

Thesis: War of the Worlds steals from other movies. It’s like a car that was put together from memorable secondhand scraps at the junkyard. It runs, but it’s no original, so don’t put too much money in it. Too late! Dreamworks and Paramount already dropped something in the neighborhood of 130 million. Let’s see if it comes back to them this weekend.

1. Tom Cruise running scared. Tommy never runs away from trouble, except in Minority Report. In almost an exact replica of his scene where he loses his eyes and hides out under bathwater in a tenement, Cruise runs away from bloodthirsty aliens throughout the entire movie, only fighting back when his pussy life depends on it.

2. Velociraptor scene. Everyone noticed this. How could you not? Remember in Jurassic Park when the kids are stuck in the kitchen with the preying raptor slithering around, and the kids sneaking around corners? Of course you do. This scene was a masterpiece in suspense, right up there with the vibrating water in heart-stopping potential! It’s really too bad Spielberg decided to rip off his own movie, again, when Cruise, Fanning, and Tim Robbins are in the cellar, always one step ahead of the snaky alien detector, and later on, when the real cartoony bastards visit.

3. The missing persons flyers tacked on bulletin boards. I remember seeing these same flyers when I visited New York City two weeks following September 11, 2001. There are two scenes where the camera dwells on this shot like some overt allusion to the terrorist attacks. Why don’t you just make a movie about 9/11 and stop sneaking in creepy homages to it, as if we’re still too delicate to handle 120 minutes when our President still insists that the war our brothers and sisters are fighting right now is against the outlaws responsible for 9/11? I’m tired of politicians, filmmakers, and Americans skirting around 9/11 like it’s some untouchable hot issue, only apt for national unity. And when atrocious movies like War of the Worlds tap into it like a kicked keg on 4th of July weekend, just days after Bush’s 9/11-laden fantasy from Fort Bragg, it makes me wish (over and over again) that 9/11 had never happened, because then we might have a different President (not to mention the WTC, 9/11 victims, and every Iraq War casuality). Damn Spielberg. Indirectly made me think in “what if..?” mode.

4. Hero looking up at the sky in fear. Come on, that’s been hit to death in ID4, Deep Impact, The Birds, and probably many other films where there’s something scary up above. We want to see the spectacle in the sky, not Cruise testing out possibilities for his Oscar nomination clip. There are already plenty of choices.

5. Chaos in the ferry scene where people are scrambling to get on when the angry tripod is approaching. Even though there is more than enough room for about four thousand more people on the ferry, the boat starts moving away from the dock as desperate people drop into the freezing water. Whoever thought Spielberg would bow down to Titanic?

6. Family drama in the beginning of the film. Cruise’s “Ray” character is a real loser, a divorcee who’s stuck with headstrong teenage son (Joey Ramone meets Full House's Uncle Joey, age 15) and inquisitive grade school daughter (Fanning) for a couple days while his ex-wife and rich new hubby go off to her folks’ house. For lack of better example, I’m reminded for some reason of the family drama in Mrs. Doubtfire because the new hubby reminds me of Pierce Brosnan, not necessarily because Cruise does a good cross-dressing Robin Williams, although given all the controversy surrounding his sexuality, his affinity for squirty slapstick humor, and a newfound impulsive, erratic behavior, it might not have been too much of a stretch.

7. I love it when the aliens come though and destroy everything…except the only vehicle in the world that still drives. I’m not sure what this luck reminds me of, but it’s movie magic all the same.

8. Tim Robbins’ lunatic character affects the sanity of all the other characters. This also happened in Mystic River. Was Sean Penn not captivated with Penn-esque anger throughout that entire film? Likewise, Tom’s “Ray” is so perturbed by Robbins’ paranoia that he has to commit bloody murder, giving the aliens a perfect opportunity (which, for some reason, they don’t take) to snatch a blindfolded singing Miss Fanning.

9. Did you see the actual aliens? I’m going to let your imaginations go with this one, since I haven’t seen much sci-fi, I am severely limited in my alien-image inventory. All I know is that something went terribly wrong in the Dreamworks CGI lab, and then Spielberg and Cruise made the crucial mistake of surrounding themselves with “Yes” men. Come to think of it, those aliens looked kind of like dinosaurs. Someone should really investigate the Jurassic – WOTW connection further. Strikingly similar in tone and theme throughout.

10. Morgan Freeman as the Voice of God, bookending the film with his omnipresent narration. Refer to any Morgan Freeman film for further proof that Morgan Freeman is always right, and therefore, is always a believable stand-in for deity. Spielberg knows.

11. The Spielberg Ending. I won’t give it away. But it’s a Spielberg ending.

12. My favorite part of War of the Worlds is when they’re driving the van though a sea of people. The people surround the car, pawing it like some celebrity is inside, and then they resort to smashing windows, beating up on old Tom, so desperate for a getaway vehicle, it turns into an ugly riot involving fists thrown and guns fired, and some greedy old gangster driving off in the van all by himself, leaving everyone else to the wrath of the tripods. I might argue that despite the obvious weaknesses of the film that I have listed above, this scene provides the most accurate symbolic portrayal of present-day America that I have ever seen onscreen. When it comes down to it, would we resort to drastic, violent, measures to save ourselves rather than humanly helping others? The moral implications of that scene have stayed with me, bothering me to the point where I had to just forget about it and think about the warm and fuzziness of the good old Spielberg ending instead.


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