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WAR OF THE WORLDS

July 1, 2005

Parris and I went to see the big Spielberg/ Cruise version of WAR OF THE WORLDS last night. I liked it more than she did.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW, if you have not seen the film)

Parris was put off by all the heavy visual evocations of 9/11, which struck her as exploitative. Those didn’t bother me so much. I kept thinking of the story as a metaphor for our invasion of Iraq… regular people trying to live their lives and survive as a technologically superior invader comes in and smashes their world all to hell. (That metaphor is very much implicit in the novel. H.G. was talking about the British imperialism of the Victorian Age, of course, not the American imperialism of the 21st century, but one of the strengths of science fiction is its ability to transcend the specifics of time and place and culture and assume new meanings for new audiences).

The Spielberg film owes more to the 1953 George Pal version than it does the H. G. Wells novel. Given the huge budget, it is no surprise to find that it is visually stunning, the action sequences spectacular.. The alien tripods are convincing and scary, and I loved the “foghorn” sound effect by which they speak to one another. The aliens themselves were also well done, but too robust for my taste. In the novel and the Pal movie, the Martians are physically frail, being a decadent race from a low gravity world, and that makes more sense to me. (Of course, Spielberg’s aliens are not Martians, but generic aliens. We never learn where they come from).

Tom Cruise’s performance is… okay. Not great, not awful. Tim Robbins blows him off the screen in the scenes they have together.

On the negative side, the happy ending feels as though it was tacked on to please the focus groups, and struck me as totally false Hollywood schtick. And about the scene where Tom Cruise and the convenient grenade belt get sucked up into the giant alien anus… well, the less said the better.

Also, the whole business about the invaders coming down on lightning bolts to activate fighting machines that they had buried on Earth millions of years ago is unspeakably ludicrous and totally unnecessary. What the hell was wrong with them crashing down in huge spaceships/ meteors, as in the novel and the Pal movie? That works much better.

I did enjoy seeing the aliens destroy my hometown. That’s Bayonne, New Jersey in the opening sequences. Looks as though Cruise works on the same docks where my father worked, and lives under the approaches of the Bayonne Bridge (the world’s second-longest steel arch bridge, don’tchaknow). I grew up a few blocks to the east of his house, and the bridge was a landmark of my childhood.

The film is worth seeing on the big screen, I think, if only for the visual spectacle. But all in all, I’d put it on the same level as INDEPENDENCE DAY, and rank the 1953 Pal version as superior, even after all these years. Pal could not do convincing tripods, given the relatively primitive SFX of the period, but his solution, the famous Martian “manta ray” fighters moving slowly and inexorably across the landscape, had their own sort of ominous beauty.

I might also mention that there are not one, not two, but three more versions of WAR OF THE WORLDS in the offing: one just out on DVD, one soon to be released on DVD, and one still in production for a 2007 release. The book is in the public domain. (Which probably means that the heirs of H.G. Wells will not see a Martian penny from all these new films of great granddaddy’s classic).

Posted in What I'm Watching.
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