(warning: contains spoilers)
I first saw Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds when it was first released in 2005. Critical response hadn’t been great and star Tom Cruise’s antics while doing publicity were creating a negative aura around it. But I generally enjoyed it although my only vivid memory of it over the years was a scene of throwing a baseball between Cruise and his son that leads to a broken window.
As the years marched on, it’s reputation seems to be cemented as one of Spielberg’s lesser films, a missed opportunity that magnified his weaknesses (especially for the relatively upbeat ending which many critics felt was misguided). Having not seen the film in over a decade, I decided to watch it again the other day and see how it has held up.
This version of WOTW has Cruise playing crane operator Ray Ferrier who is divorced and estranged from his children. While his children are visiting, unusual weather patterns signal something is awry and when an invading alien force arises in the local town, it begins to incinerate most of the nearby humans. Ray and his family escape but with a seemingly unstoppable alien force devastating society, how will they survive?
The startling thing I found watching the film this time is how grim and depressing it is; even in this present day of big-budget films often being cynical and downbeat, WOTW is a particularly harrowing film to take at times.
Undoubtedly the most striking aspect of the film is in the first half when the aliens start to attack the general population. Spielberg manages to genuinely convey the horror of an unstoppable superior force wiping out human lives in an instant, especially through random individuals being turned to dust. It makes one think of the endless modern wars humanity has suffered and the countless lives wasted by an unstoppable military power. Later scenes which briefly show humans being harvested by aliens for their blood and matter-of-factly rummaging through personal human belongings further underline that.
When the focus shifts to Cruise and his family in the film’s second half, the film loses a some of its impact (although still reasonably effective) because it feels a bit misguided and redundant. While perhaps inevitable under conventional narrative structure, WOTW would’ve been a powerful if it had a broader scope and focussed on the whole fate of humanity.
And it’s the prime reason for the most criticised aspect of WOTW – namely the final scene where not Ray returns his daughter to her mother (curiously in a part of town unscathed by alien attacks) and his seemingly dead son returns unscathed. The critical consensus seemed to be that the finale was too positive and unlikely considering the devastation that had occurred previously. I think this criticism is valid to an extent but the seeds for it are laid in the decision the film makes to move its focus from society getting attacked by the aliens to primarily Cruise and family being attacked. Once the film chooses that path, the final scene is inevitable.
Another criticism of the film was that Cruise as a working-class parent (albeit a divorced one) was unconvincing. It is true that this is a very atypical role for him (even now he’s still playing individualistic action heroes) and he doesn’t seem a natural fit for such a role. But that sense of awkwardness actually works in the film’s favour because Cruise’s character has clearly been a poor parent (and husband) that even his own kids are reluctant to call him Dad.
And the underlying theme of the story is how Cruise’s character matures in the most heinous situation possible and becomes the strong parent that he would never have been without the alien invasion. When you factor in all the physicality required for the role, Cruise in the role makes sense and he generally does a good job with it.
Apart from Cruise, there isn’t a chance for many other actors to make an impression. One of them is Dakota Fanning as Ray’s daughter who starts off as one of those know-it-all pre-teener who only seem to exist in the movies and then, when the aliens attack, becoming understandably hysterical at the fear and horror that is surrounding her. Perhaps the filmmakers made her character a self-assured preteen to outline how useless this attitude is in real life? In anycase, while there seemed to be criticism of how hysterical her character was that seemed far more believable than the early scenes.
Another performance of note is Tim Robbins who plays a disturbed individual whose residence Ray and his daughter hide out with for a brief period of time. What’s most effective about his character (helped by Robbins’ whose perfectly cast in the role) is that he has that uneasy mix of being seemingly perceptive one minute, then clearly disturbed the next minute. Eventually it becomes clear that he’s someone who can’t be trusted, leading to a grim realisation from Ray about what must be done.
Overall, WOTW holds up as a generally impressive experience. It misses the potential for greatness by not looking at the big picture of how such an alien invasion would impact humanity on a grand scale and instead focussing on the small beer of the fate of one family, but it’s a fine film and an undervalued work in Spielberg’s career.