Wednesday, August 20, 2014

War of the Worlds

If there’s any movie star in the last decade or so who seems to always star in big money-makers and movie blockbusters you’d have to think of Tom Cruise.  Although he really has little depth or wide range of acting skills, he definitely knows how to pick an interesting film to star in and distinguishes what will be a big payout.  It seems that ever since his starring role as Ethan Hunt in the first Mission: Impossible film, he’s made action hit after action hit, with quite a few sci-fi extravaganzas here and there as well.  And one such futuristic film Cruise starred in was the successful 2002 film, Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg.  So, probably realizing the perfect team-up they’d made, Cruise and Spielberg collaborated once more in 2005 with War of the Worlds.

Now, what I’d mentioned about Cruise’s acting skills is in no way meant to disparage him.  I actually enjoy his performances and look forward to most of his films nowadays.  Although I highly admire Cruise and the films he’s been featured in the past ten or fifteen years, there had been a time when I disliked him and that was during the 80s and early 90s, when he was younger and seemed like a douche bag in most of his films.  These days, I certainly can relate to his films where he plays the everyday type of guy—your Average Joe—and in War of the Worlds, that’s sort of what you get.

Of course, just about every film that Spielberg produces or directs turns to gold no matter what, and when it comes to a sci-fi flick, you know he’s going to put out something special.  Hearing that this film was a remake of the 1953 classic, I accepted it and knew it wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill do-over just for a Hollywood studio to make money.  I understood that if Spielberg was attached, he was going to put his heart and soul into it and not do it just to make a paycheck.  So, not only was I expecting some great direction to give us a wonderful human element of the story while having to place that in the middle of an alien invasion, I also knew we were going to get some magnificent special effects as well.

With all that said, I waited patiently for War of the Worlds to be released and watched it on opening day back on June 29th of 2005.

The film starts with Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), working as a loading operator at the local dock in New Jersey.  He arrives at home, tardily, after work to meet up with his kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), as his ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), and her new husband, Tim (David Alan Basche), drop them off at his place.  Later, behind the house, a storm appears a distance away that develops
quickly and violently, causing Ray and Rachel to take cover inside the house.  When the lightning and strange thunder sounds abate, Ray investigates the neighborhood, noticing all power has been knocked out—including cars and even his watch.  Seeing everyone gathering at a street intersection because of a crack forming in the street where witnesses saw lightning strike repeatedly, Ray goes to see what’s going on.  Suddenly, the street shifts and the crack opens up with a large machine, on three mechanical legs and appearing hundreds of feet tall, rising from underneath the ground.  Without warning, the machine bellows out a long and deep horn sound and begins to disintegrate everybody in its path.  Ray is able to flee and arrives home in time to get to his children and tries to take them away from the threat that seems to be happening all over, with alien machines rising up all over the world to destroy mankind.

Watching this film in the theater is so much better and fantastical, as you feel the threat and tension a lot more.  When I was sitting in my seat and that deafening horn sounds before the machines start firing their weapons at everyone, I nearly jumped out of my seat.  It was so loud and unlike anything I’ve ever heard—quite alien (pardon the pun), as a matter of fact—so it takes you by surprise when that blast hits your eardrums.  Viewing this at home on your television might not have the same effect the movie puts out when seeing it on a big screen with loud stereophonics going on, but it’s still fun to watch and you can still enjoy it as a great sci-fi popcorn flick.  Perhaps you can try watching it in the dark and close to the screen, using some Beats headphones to duplicate the feel of watching the film in a movie theater (shrug).

At first, I was a little taken aback, observing Tom Cruise as a father of two with his son being a teenager.  Seeing Cruise in all his movies over the years, starting off as a teen heartthrob in his heydays, I’ve always seen him in my age group (even though he’s a few years older than me), so observing him as a father makes me feel old.  But I soon had gotten over that, realizing that it was needed, especially introducing him as a sort of a deadbeat dad that lives like a bachelor, not thinking ahead enough to prepare his household for his regular visitation from his children.  This makes you understand the animosity by his son, Robbie, and how estranged he is from Cruise’s character.

All said, the cast featured did a wonderful job to keep the audience’s interest when there were no alien machines attacking or during the down times of the film.  You really understand the awkward chemistry between Ray Ferrier and his children, really feeling for him when he tries to connect with them—especially during the escape from the city and the alien attacks.

War of the Worlds really features some awesome special effects—jaw-dropping and quite scary in its magnitude.  The destruction of the highway overpass and buildings that you see behind Ray and his children as they’re driving away is amazing.  Unlike the 1953 version, Spielberg chose to follow some of the source
material and have the machines walk instead of flying around.  And what a great choice that was as the machines walking on their gangly limbs is what H.G. Wells described in his novel.  Not only are the machines rendered realistically, but so are the aliens and mechanisms that they—as well as their machines—use.  And speaking of their mechanisms…those ray guns shooting and disintegrating humans?  Awesome!

The genius thing that Spielberg displayed in this film, however, was to take it a step further and show that these aliens not only used machines based on tripedalism, but to show that their biology centered on it as well.  When they’re shown for the first time in the basement of the house that Ray, Rachel and Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) are holed up in, we see that the aliens have three appendages—appearing to be two arms and one leg, but used all together to walk. 

One thing I’ve never seen before—especially in Spielberg’s films—is the filming technique used during the getaway scene where Cruise’s character drives his children away from the alien attack in the city.  I suppose maybe Spielberg had used green-screen techniques or some sort of mounted camera—maybe he used both.  But the camera goes from one side of the minivan to the other during the high-speed drive down the highway.  It’s quite exciting and exhilarating to witness this scene.

Lastly, you can’t have a Spielberg film without John Williams, right?  It’s quite amazing how long these two men have collaborated on films—forty years and counting!  When looking down the list of films they’ve done together, almost every movie I see, I instantly can think of the main theme in my head, sometimes humming it easily enough.  Alas, with War of the Worlds, the music score is not that memorable and you really don’t leave this movie whistling the tunes as you walk down the street.  Of course, Williams did a fantastic job of putting in the right cues to match what we see on the screen, but it’s no Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark

If there’s one thing I can nitpick about this movie is the lack of expanse we see with the alien attacks.  The film mainly focuses on what Ray Ferrier sees and doesn’t go much further than that—with a few glimpses of news reports peppered here and there.  I think it would’ve been nice to see what was going on in other parts of the world, seeing the destruction of other places.  But I guess Spielberg just wanted to focus on the human aspect of the film, especially the turnaround we see between Ferrier and his son and daughter, so I can’t fault him on that.

So, what’s my final “bit” on War of the Worlds?

The film is a fantastic look at an alien invasion from the point of view of one family.  Once the action starts, it hardly ever slows down, keeping you on edge with the characters.  The ending is a bit of a let-down as it just ends—albeit, pretty cleverly—kind of on a low note and not with much satisfaction.  As a whole, however, the film is great for the whole family and doesn’t disappoint as it goes along full throttle.  I wouldn’t miss it if you haven’t seen it.

As a side “bit” on War of the Worlds, the overwhelming scene that Ray witnesses as he emerges from his ex-wife’s house, seeing the downed jetliner, as parts of the plane are strewn about the neighborhood, was filmed in Universal Studios’ back lot.  In fact, the set is still intact as visitors to the park see it each time they ride on the studio tram tour.  The story the guides give is that Spielberg actually purchased the retired 747 just to have production cut it into pieces to make it look like a realistic-looking crash site.  Also, during Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, visitors to the park get to walk through this set…that was a definite treat for me!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the movies!

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