War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds
Reviewed by John Fraim

Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic HG Wells story The War of the Worlds, opens amidst a number of other earthbound wars. One is certainly the "war of the words" between its star Tom Cruise and the press. As USA Today reviewer Claudia Puig wryly notes, the film is "even scarier than Tom Cruise’s behavior lately." Another set of wars are the ongoing cultural wars in America between the people of the red and blue states, the media and the administration and the Supreme Court and property rights. In the background of all of this is the post 9/11 world the on-going war in Iraq and a President commited to "staying the course."

Since the original Wells book, the story has served as a type of symbol to contain the overriding fears of the times. The 1898 book of Wells was seen as an indictment of the colonialism of the late 1800s and a prediciton of the world wars to follow. It appeared when Britain feared an invasion from Germany. In 1938, the story resurfaced right before World War II via a radio broadcast created by Orson Wells which many in the nation took for the real thing. In 1953, director George Pal first brought the story to the silver screen in a film that played to Cold War fears and the threat of infiltration by the communists. Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall notes, the 1953 film "ends with one of the survivors of the attack saying, ‘keep watching the sky, stay vigilant against another attack.’" Sharrett observes, "That’s the message of ‘50s Cold War cinema, almost a kind of propaganda saying we have to be on guard."

Now we have the 2005 version of the Wells story and it’s  another symbolic container for the fears of the day: the dark cloud of terrorism after 9/11, the threat of nuclear weapons in a number of rogue nations and the on-going war in Iraq. As LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan notes, Spielberg’s version of the story "is a perfect fit for our paranoid, potentially apocalyptic age, a film that considers the possibility, however obliquely, that the world as we know it could end."

On the surface, the film is about a divorced father getting to know his children. Cruise plays the part of a blue-collar dock-worker Ray Ferrier who gets his two children for the weekend as his former wife goes to Boston with her new husband to visit her parents. "He sees his kids very infrequently," Spielberg says of the Cruise character. "He’s able to see them every other weekend, but he chooses to see them only every six or seven weeks. That has created a lot of pain, and one weekend when he takes the kids this cataclysmic event occurs, and he suddenly has to grow up fast."

The opening scenes in the $128 million film will remind many divorced parents (as well as their children) of those difficult exhanges when the children go to spend weekends with one of the parents. Steven Speilberg and Tom Cruise can be counted as divorced parents in this group. Though they have long since reconciled, the relationship between Spielberg and his dad, Arnold, an electrical engineer whose job changes meant the family frequently moved across the country, was strained at times, especially in his early adulthood. And, Tom Cruise recalls the painful times after his parent’s divorce. "I remember as a kid when I was going through (difficult) things, I’d just go to movies because I wanted to hope. I wanted to dream," says Cruise. The actor was estranged from his late father as a child after his parents’ divorce. "If you dream about it, and you can put it there (on the screen), it’s an opportunity for those people to see they can turn their lives around. If you don’t say that you can turn around, that you can make things go right, then there’s no hope in the world."

In all of these brief weekends with the other (absent) parent, there is the small flame of fantasy in the children (and perhaps even the parent) that the weekend might somehow be a magical one and that something new might happen rather than, as happens more often than not, being a boring mixture of TV shows, video games, pizzas and kids wearing iPod headphones blocking out any real communication.

Well, this particular weekend becomes one of those magical weekends hoped for by millions of kids of divorced parents in America. It is a weekend full of terror and fear. But ultimately, it is a weekend filled with the magic of something new that brings a closer relationship with an estranged parent. As Speilberg notes, "I wanted this to be a very personal story about a family fleeing for its life. And a father trying to protect his two kids — a father who isn’t much of a father but has to catch up along the way."

But the symbolism of this special time when children briefly see their other (alien) parent is quickly smothered out by the invasion of perhaps the greatest special effects efforts ever seen in film. Aided by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and Industrial Light & Magic’s visual-effects supervisor Dennis Muren (an eight-time Oscar winner) Spielberg uses light and color in stunning and dramatic ways in ways similar to, yes, how Orson Wells used black and white light in Citizen Kane.

We could recount the plot line briefly in this review but, again, plot is continually evaporated like the people fleeing from the incredible special effects of the giant spider like machines of the invaders. When you are creating a new level of special effects in the movies, plot (and even leading stars) take a back seat.

At the end of the film, Tom Cruise delivers his daughter to her mother in Boston. A billion people have been killed and Boston doesn’t look too good but Tom Cruise stands on a street of broken cars and homes as his daughter (the marvelous Dakota Fanning) goes running into the arms of her mother. Out of the home of his estranged wife’s parents, their also appears his son who was lost for a lot of the movie and presumed dead. After being separated from his father, he has somehow made it to Boston also.

There is that familiar scene of reunion that we have witnessed in countless movies over the years. Certainly a grand symbol of movies. One is pretty sure that Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise witnessed this scene when they were children at the cinemas of their childhood. Witnessed it and wished so deeply that it might be real.

It is a magical scene. It has been a magical weekend. Yeah, a billion people have been killed and half the capital cities of the world probably destroyed. Yes, it might be about all the terrorists today.

Yeah, it’s about evil and and terrorism like most of the reviews tell us. But lets cut through all the crap and get to the important stuff.

The real symbol is a magical weekend and two children who have regained their father through an amazing adventure … something that they all hoped for, something beyond any grand special effects and fantasy.

Something millions of children hope for each weekend.

© 2005 - John Fraim. All rights reserved.
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