BEWARE: It you have not seen this film there are SPOILERS! ahead.
Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds is a 21st century re-telling of the classic novel by H.G. Wells, relocating the core of the story from Victorian England to present-day east coast U.S.A. On re-watching the film I realised I had forgotten how tense the film became and how quickly. We’ve barely got our bearings with regard to location and characters when events start taking a turn for the worse.
Morgan Freeman provides the opening narration and I’m sure I’m not alone in having to suppress thoughts of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the story as Freeman came to the end of the line “…slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.”
Those plans were to have vehicles already buried underground on Earth – presumably an extremely long time ago before either man existed or occupied quite so much of the planet, which actually begs the question as to why they didn’t take over the world then – ready for such a time where they can ride lightning into said vehicles and dominate the world. This is probably one of the films few weaknesses, but as it’s a major plot point setting up the rest of the story, it could be considered major one. However if you can see past this and accept the invasion is happening then the rest of film is more than worth it.
We have barely been introduced to Ray (Tom Cruise almost playing against type) , a dysfunctional divorcee and estranged from his kids Robbie (Justin Long) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) when almost immediately they are thrust into the perils of an alien invasion. Dysfunctional families are nothing new for Spielberg, being a common theme throughout his career, but previously this theme has tended to sit in the background as part of the fabric of the story. Here it almost takes centre-stage as he explores the developing relationship between the three as they deal with the most extreme of situations.
From the initial escape from New Jersey all the way through the film, Spielberg lays on set-piece after set-piece, never letting up for a moment for well over an hour into the film. The moment the lightning strikes begin to occur he ratchets up the tension and doesn’t let go. From the fighting machine coming up from underground, to the plane crash (actually unseen) to the ferry sequence, to the army being wiped out (seemingly taking Robbie with it) it’s a roller-coaster ride almost akin to Temple Of Doom yet Spielberg eventually allows the film and the audience to draw breath when Ray and Rachel find themselves in the cellar of Ogilvy (played by Tim Robbins).
Just when you think you can begin to relax with what is the quietest sequence of the film, Spielberg gives us a master-class in movie making. After a brief exchange of dialogue between Ray and Ogilvy – where it becomes clear Ogilvy may not be the full shilling – the scene plays out almost silently as a martian probe searches the cellar and the three characters struggle to stay out of its way. But Spielberg then saves the best until last as just when you think you can begin to breathe again, a group of actual aliens descend into view and you can’t help but make an involuntary gasp as the tension begins anew. Then to top this off Ray has to do a father’s duty and kill Ogilvy to ensure both his and Rachel’s survival.
We then enter the final major set-piece of the film, via a rather dark and rather twisted nod to The Wizard Of Oz, as Ray and Rachel leave the house they’ve been staying in and discover the red weed. Not long afterwards they are then discovered by a martian machine which scoops them up and puts them into a basket hanging from the machine. This is the closest encounter with the aliens yet. Ray is sucked up into the machine but thanks to some conveniently found grenades, and help from other people trapped with him, he is able to destroy the machine from the inside and ensure the survival of both himself and Rachel.
From there we arrive at Boston and the beginning of the end for the martians as they fall prey to our smallest allies: bacteria. This seems to have been one of the key aspects of the film that has been latched onto as a weakness. Maybe it’s because it lacks the sort of big finale that many modern day blockbusters seem to aspire to. This is the polar opposite. In keeping with the book, it is abrupt and sudden, it comes out of nowhere and without warning. Yet, in the real world wars don’t tend to end with a big bang, but a whimper. The losing side simply does not have the resources to carry on and this is very much what we have here. The aliens succumb to the bacteria and cannot continue the fight. There is more a feeling of relief than euphoria.
The ultimate ending of the film – that of the family re-union – is probably the area of the film I personally thought was the weakest. The neighbourhood looks like it has been totally untroubled by the events of the previous two hours, yet various mentions are made through-out the film of other parts of the world being affected. But more than that, I always had a problem with the revelation that Robbie had survived. My feeling was that the ending would have been stronger had he not been there. Had he not been allowed to survive. I felt that a bittersweet ending would have been interesting following the abrupt end to the war. However on re-watching the film now and expecting to feel the same, I was surprised to find my opinion may have changed. I felt that Ray deserved that ending, he had not only saved his daughter but had also saved the relationship with his son.
I feel that this a forgotten 21st century Spielberg gem and as such would rate it 4/5.