Thursday, December 15, 2005

War of the Worlds

One of my favorite descriptions of War of the Worlds was given by James Berardinelli before the movie was released. He described the film as our chance to see how Spielberg would have handled Independence Day. The director, who showed aliens as our friends in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T, treads a more antagonistic path here, showing aliens who simply want to exterminate us. The film is definitely less silly and has a stronger emotional core than Independence Day. And that is because, inspite of all the technical wizardry, Spielberg doesn't forget the human element.

Tom Cruise plays a construction worker who is divorced and from the looks of it, not too sad about it. One weekend, he gets custody of the kids while his ex-wife goes to visit her current husband's family. His plans for the weekend are further killed when steaks of lightning cause giant tripods to come out of the ground and start eliminating the inhabitants of earth. So he tries to take his kids back to his wife.

The best part of the film is that it shows its hero as “one of us”. Sure the camera stays focused on him and he doesn’t get vaporized like guys next to him (after all, he is Tom Cruise!). But for almost the entire film, he is an everyman whose only goal is to stay alive. He runs away from the aliens, is almost lost among the escaping crowds and gives up in a fight when he is outnumbered. He does everything we would do if we were caught in the middle of an alien attack! Even when he performs a heroic act, it is to save his daughter and he depends on others to complete it.

The film is manipulative but skillfully so. Having Cruise’s young and helpless daughter tag along gives the film a strong emotional underpinning by giving us a character we start caring for very quickly. There is more tension in the single scene where Dakota is almost separated from Cruise, than in all the scenes of the aliens going on a destroying spree put together. And the gradual bonding between Cruise and her is nice. But Cruise’s son is an irritant, behaving too irrationally even for a rebellious teenager. The confrontations between Cruise and him counterbalance the strength of the emotions between Cruise and his daughter.

The movie lost me once it began to focus on the aliens rather than Cruise and his family. Their MO seems too unbelievable even for a sci-fi film and not much is offered by way of explanation. Their eventual motives and how they plan to go about it are also pretty hazy and I never really understood how they are eventually brought down. Independence Day may have been silly but atleast it was understandable. War of the Worlds, maybe intentionally, was too vague.

The human element is evident even on the technical side. Rather than focus on the aliens' attack, Spielberg opts to show us the devastation caused by the attack. The torn down building, the downed aeroplane and a creepy shot by the river all fall under that category.


At 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Balaji, the aliens are eventually brought down by the bacteria present on leaves, atmosphere etc. i.e. natural cause, is what the voiceover says at the end. Aliens arent immune to these microorganisms like us. This wasnt addressed well in the film because, you would think the aliens would have done some "research" before launching the attack.So it seemed a little anti-climactic but probably meant to be ironical or convey some message.

To me, war of the worlds was a step down from Minority report. Hope Spielburg's soon-to-be-released Munich is more exciting.


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