War of the Worlds (2005)

An excellent rendition of terror, of the utter fear of being hunted, dominated, destroyed. The film opens on KOYAANISQATSI-esque shots of humans busying themselves about, while Morgan Freeman narrates from H. G. Wells’ novel, talking of aliens scrutinising humans while they went about their lives unawares. After a quick establishment of the tropes Spielberg puts into play (deadbeat dad and so forth), there’s an excellent protracted build-up of unnatural weather (lightning with no thunder, wind blowing towards the sky) before the tripods raise from the ground and begin their great extermination.

Back in 2005 I remember being scared of the film’s poster, and fear really is the key triumph of the film. John Williams’ score is haunting and really embodies the fundamental wrongness of the aliens. Spielberg often has the camera stick with Tom Cruise’s character for lengthy sequences, such as when Cruise runs away from the first tripod beginning its slaughter. Cruise getting covered in dust is a clear call to 9/11, and much of the film seems a kind of processing of 9/11. The novel processed the inevitable death wish that comes with high power and the domination of others, and this film works through the crisis of having the world turned upside down and attackers abruptly terminate all normality. Dakota Fanning’s character outright asks ‘is it the terrorists?’ in some of the film’s more leaden dialogue; the imagery and setpieces alone do a better job than anything outright allegorical. Particularly well-done is a scene where looters invade a car the film’s main family is using; apparently written in the script as a refutation of Spielberg’s sunshien view of humanity.

The imperialism concerns of the book are washed away (the closest the film really gets is Justin Chatwin’s moody son character having a paper due on the French occupation of Algeria), but it’s surprisingly faithful in other respects. The alien harvesting of humans is retained, right down to using pipettes to drain people’s blood. Spielberg changes the invading tripods to have been underneath Earth for millions of years, somewhat of an awkward workaround to avoid the cliche alien spaceship landing type scenes, but the implication that Earth had been an unwitting farm, a raising of livestock for millennia is appealing. The conflation of the characters of the curate and the artilleryman works quite well in isolation, I quite like how the protagaist’s disagreements with those characters are dramatised in the film. But the entire second half of the film is somewhat shaky, a comedown after the gripping and immediate terror of the first half.

It’s bothersome how Spielberg has to a degree renounced the original ending of the novel that he adapted, saying he ‘never could figure out how to end that darn thing’ to James Cameron, and even saying ‘the film doesn’t have a good ending’. The script foreshadows the bacteria-based ending in having the daughter character speak of how her body will naturally push a splinter out towards the beginning. If there’s any pressing issue with the ending, it’s the inexplicable survival of every main character, where one of the film’s more stirring moments seemed to guarantee their death. This is in keeping with the spirit of the novel, where the narrator and his wife are against all reason reunited in the realm of the living at the end, but doesn’t work especially well adaptationally given the characterisation of the father/son relationship, as well as the general fallback into Spielberg sentimentality that much of the film gained power from eschewing.

For all that, it’s a great exercise in alien invasion terror, and a strong showing from Spielberg and Cruise. Three and a half peanut butter sandwiches, and a working solenoid.

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