Thursday, June 30

The End is Here

Spielberg brings us a modern re-telling of the classic nightmare.

Last night, I just needed a break so I made it a point to catch War of the Worlds in the theater after work. Despite a bit of overtime, I was able to catch a last full show of Steven Spielberg’s latest and greatest.
While waiting for the main show to start, I got the nifty treat of catching several cool new trailers. One was for Zathura, which is pretty much Jumanji except with a pulp science fiction theme (which is not surprising when you consider it’s from the same writer). Then there was a trailer for Peter Jackson’s upcoming remake of King Kong, which looked pretty impressive. The effects and production look pretty slick, and Naomi Watts looks especially fetching in the role made famous by actress Fay Raye. Plus it was surprising to see Jack Black in a role other than that of geek/loser/weirdo/comedian.

Anyway! Onto the main feature. SPOILERS AHEAD.

War of the Worlds is of course based on novel by H.G. Wells, and perhaps taking off from the infamous radio play that caused Americans to panic several decades ago, as well as the classic movie. Of course, the new version revs up the action and pushes everything into a contemporary setting and the point of view of an everyman, Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise.
Ray isn’t a perfect guy. He’s an exceptional worker and he earns well enough to support a bachelor’s lifestyle. He’s got his hot car and a suitably messy place with no food in the fridge. But then, Ray isn’t a bachelor… he’s divorced, with two kids staying mostly with his wife (LOTR’s Miranda Otto) and her new and better husband (great house, family car, everything). Ray’s failure as a husband and a father is a sore spot with him, despite his fa├žade. Anyway, during one weekend when the wife leaves the two kids- hot-headed teen Robby (Justin Chatwin) and pre-teen Rachel (Dakota Fanning)- with him for the weekend, little did Ray know that his fathering skills would be pushed to the breaking point by an alien invasion.

The attack is heralded by freakish lightning strikes, which hit the ground repeatedly. The buildup is tense and quick as the ground suddenly breaks, revealing… perhaps some of the most terrifying imagery of aliens yet seen in modern cinema. It’s not just the weird and cool and slick designs of the alien ‘tripods’… it’s the stark realness of it all. The things look real, and set against an everyday cityscape, they look all the more freakish and… real.
Anyway, soon after the first tripod appears, Ray decides to pack some stuff, grab the kids and get the hell out of Dodge… and that turns out to be a pretty good idea since everything behind them soon turns into dust and destruction. Now, with only the elusive hope of finding some sanctuary in Boston with the ex-wife (who may or may not be there at the end), Ray and his kids must somehow survive not only the menacing alien war machines but the simple madness that humanity tends to sink into when the proverbial shit hits the fan.

This is easily one of Spielberg’s darkest films yet- easily on par with Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and to an extent, his classic Duel. He does still keep his standards- the blood and gore is never gratuitous, but there are images and implications here that are truly disturbing and macabre- which leads me to believe that impressionable youngsters should NOT see this film- it’s that scary.

That said, it’s one hell of a ride. The tension, the action and the performances are spot on. Cruise is pretty good as the slightly obnoxious Ferrier, perhaps one of his more intense roles in his career. Dakota Fanning is the image of childish smart alecness and innocence thrust into a madhouse of fear, and you can just imagine a real kid reacting as she does to the horror that she sees- I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Oscar nod for this kid. As for Justin Chatwin, I really disliked his character, but I think he did a fairly good performance. While the monstrous special effects lord over most of the screen, the reactions of the cast are what sells the sights and this pays off in spades in making the tension and chaos onscreen believable.

Did I like it? Hell yes. I was thrilled, scared, amazed, appalled and thrilled again. The film has a relentless pace, though it noticeably slows at one point, when Ray meets the kooky Ogilvy, played by Tim Robbins. I do not agree too much with the resolution of this particular subplot- I think the end of it was unnecessary, but I guess it adds that much more grittiness to the movie. That aside though, I was absorbed with every second and I did have a bit of fear in the back of my mind that when we exited the theater it would be to a burnt-out wasteland with alien tripods looming over us…

Leave the kids at home. Watch this in a theater. And thank God that this is just fiction.

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