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It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion . . . is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence.
—H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
So far this summer at the movies, it has been possible to watch the world end (or, at least, descend into chaos) in a number of familiar ways — via the machinations of a corrupt despot (in Revenge of the Sith), the ideological maxims of an Eastern villain hell-bent on chemical warfare (in Batman Begins) or (in Land of the Dead) the isolationist tendencies of a greedy autocrat who earns the ire of the flesh-eating masses. Taken together, these movies have suggested a burgeoning consciousness in an ostensibly mindless genre, reminiscent of the communist paranoia that famously worked its way into such 1950s B pictures as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing From Another World. Suddenly, and with increasing frequency, those of us accustomed to consuming cinematic death and destruction as though it were popcorn have found ourselves choking on some not-so-small sociopolitical bones.
If Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds at first seems a reprieve, such comfort is fleeting. Which is, no doubt, just as H.G. Wells would have wanted it. Published in the waning days of the 19th century, his The War of the Worlds was a troubled reaction to an England Wells saw as fatally lagging behind its fellow first-world nations in the tide of global progress. (As late as 1895, electricity and indoor plumbing were still viewed as luxuries even by many supposedly industrialized Londoners.) With its vision of technologically advanced Martians momentarily gaining the upper hand on mankind, the novel was intended as an allegorical wake-up call for Wells’ countrymen — though even the author himself may have been disturbed at how presciently his narrative anticipated the next century’s campaigns of totalitarian terror.
That’s more or less where Spielberg steps in. For his War (which was co-scripted by Josh Friedman and David Koepp) is less a glance into a possible future or even a reaction to the times in which we live than it is a plangent contemplation of the times in which we have been living for the last 100-odd years. From the moment of the film’s first alien attack — and the panic-stricken daughter (Dakota Fanning) of the movie’s stevedore protagonist (Tom Cruise) screaming, "Is that the terrorists?" — War of the Worlds announces itself as a reverse inventory of 20th- and 21st-century atrocities, beginning with 9/11 (blinding clouds of debris filling the streets of New York and airplanes falling from the sky) and winding its way back through the L.A. riots (a truly terrifying scene in which Cruise is pulled from his car and beaten by an enraged mob), the corpse-strewn rivers of Rwanda, the battlefields and deportation trains of WWII, and even (in a perilous drawbridge scene) the sinking of the Titanic, with its eternal reminder of man’s hubristic folly. And so it is that the movie’s aliens — whose origin is never identified and who rarely appear apart from their giant, stalking tripod vehicles — are presented not as a specific threat but as the abstract manifestation of all that shatters our notion of ourselves as all-powerful beings.
The imagery is startling not just for its symbolic resonances, but for the breathless intensity with which it sears the screen. As with most of Spielberg’s recent films, War was produced incredibly quickly for a movie of its scale (filming only began last November) and that frantic energy invades every frame of the finished picture. Like its own characters — particularly Cruise’s Ray, who spends most of the film in amped-up Jerry Maguire/Magnolia/Oprah mode — this is a movie on the run for its life. Spielberg’s camerawork, with the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, is fast and loose, and the muddied, earthen palette lends an unusually tactile quality to the elaborate digital effects. There’s also, despite the movie’s generally grave tone, a discernible pleasure in the way that Spielberg, after years of filling our dreams with visions of benevolent interstellar visitors, now takes to stocking our nightmares instead. A city street cracks and buckles like too-thin ice. Disembodied shirts and pants drift through the air, parted from their recently vaporized owners. And as the aliens devour their human prey, bright-red blood sprays out in all directions like some vampiric sprinkler system.
As he ably demonstrated in E.T., Spielberg — who has often (and not always undeservedly) been fingered as a sentimentalist — can be as honest and unsentimental an observer of broken-down families as any we have in American movies. His own parents divorced when he was 16, and that residual pain informs War’s terse relationship between Ray, a borderline deadbeat, and his brooding teenage son, Robbie (the very good newcomer Justin Chatwin). Over the course of the film’s apocalyptic tumult, Ray becomes fortified in his resolve to hold his family together after everything else around him is obliterated. In the hands of a less knowing and confident filmmaker — one too eager to lift the audience’s spirits — that might have been the entrÃ©e to a tidy resolution in which Ray and his ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), decide to give things another go. But in Wells’ own spirit, Spielberg remains skeptical of too-happy endings. In the movie’s final shot, the heroic Ray, like The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, stands at literal and figurative remove from a welcoming home front, palpably wary of the ease with which we return to normality and routine in the wake of great disaster. As well he should be.
WAR OF THE WORLDS| Directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG | Written by JOSH FRIEDMAN and DAVID KOEPP, based on the novel by H.G. Wells | Produced by KATHLEEN KENNEDY and COLIN WILSON | Released by Paramount and DreamWorks SKG | Citywide
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