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 entrée 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.

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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