Steven Spielberg meets Tom Cruise (again), and things get boring (again)
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to screw up an alien invasion. El Stevo’s remake of the 1953 George Pal sci-fi kitsch classic lacks the naïve charm of the original and falls far short of even the rabble-rousing panache of the screamingly stupid Independence Day. What, one must ask, is the problem with Mr. Box Office? As the creator of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park, Spielberg virtually invented the modern thriller, but lately – that is, in the past twenty years – he’s gone all wobbly on us. It all comes down to the Jerry Ford Syndrome. Jerry, as is well known, couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Steve can’t think and make a decent picture.1
That said, any remake of The War of the Worlds in post-9/11 America is doomed to be a parable, and in the first half of the film Steve gives us plenty of genuine intensity and some shrewd home thrusts about the psychology of mobs and the difficulty of responding to a world literally turned upside down. But the second half is remarkably confused, and the wrap-up, a mélange of thrown-together, misbegotten heroics and undramatic ironies, is nothing less than pathetic. Parables, after all, are likely to involve messy things like pain and loss and renunciation, none of which have ever sold popcorn – not in Spielbergian quantities, at least.
War of the Worlds begins with impressive shots of Tom Cruise (“Ray Ferrier”) as a crane-jockey on the Bayonne, New Jersey docks, unloading a container ship with serious blue-collar aplomb. Once he’s on the ground, however, we discover that he’s a self-absorbed smart-ass. He won’t cut his foreman a break, refusing to take another dude’s shift, citing “union rules.”2 He hops into his vintage Mustang, one of too many too cute touches that mar the first half of film,3 and blasts off in a manner very reminiscent of Robert De Niro in the opening of The Deer Hunter.
When Tom gets home we discover that we’re already hip-deep in clichés. Tom’s divorced, he’s a bad father, and his ex-wife has traded up. Her new boyfriend is so upper-middle-class in his Armani rags that he could almost be French. On top of that, she’s pregnant by the dude. Ouch, n’est-ce pas?
So Tom has to put up with his sullen son Robbie (Justin Chatwin)4 and smart-mouth daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning),5) who, when he tells her to order out, orders humus. Humus! Fucking humus! Jesus! No wonder this country’s going to fucking hell!
Any civilization that regards humus as take-out is more or less begging for divine retribution, and the old wheels of fate don’t waste any time getting into gear. Mysterious storms start breaking out all over the whole fucking country.6 Tom takes Rachel outside to see the show, and we get some clumsy, unnecessary dialogue: “Funny – the wind’s blowing towards the storm.” “That’s strange. There’s lightning, but no thunder.” We don’t have to be told that something strange is going to happen, Stevo. We know something strange is going to happen. We read the fucking title!
The advent of the Martians (actually, nameless aliens) isn’t that different from the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there’s nothing wrong with using a good trick twice. Terrible lightning crashes, giant chasms opening in the earth, toppling buildings, it’s all good, although the collapse of the front of the church borrows too obviously from The Navigator.7
As Tom dodges the shearing asphalt and flying debris, we see that he’s more than self-centered, self-indulgent tough guy. Unlettered, inarticulate though he may be, he’s got good instincts. He gets it! This is no ordinary shit! It’s time to move! Tom makes it back to his house one step ahead of the death rays, covered with the ash of his neighbors, an explicit reference to both 9/11 and the Holocaust. Robbie and Rachel are full of questions, but Tom, though he knows what has to be done, can’t explain why.8
The initial escape of the Ferrier family is one of the best parts of the film, the one part that has the feel of reality rather than just the appearance. Tom’s desperate struggle with his mechanic buddy, who can’t understand that his entire world has changed in the last half hour, that nothing, absolutely nothing matters except immediate survival (“You can’t take that car! It’s a customer’s car!”), the maddening tendency of kids to do the exact opposite of what they’re told, the compulsive fury of the mob at anyone who dares to have an advantage, however they may have earned it9 – it’s all beautifully done.
Tom tells the kids that they’re going to see mommy, at “their” house, a rather random lie that seems mostly intended to get the three into a classic, upper-middle-class American home. You thought that money and good taste would protect you, America? That granite counter tops and $500 espresso machines were proof against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the fury and mire of human veins? Think again!
In the morning Tom wakes up to find a crashed 747 on the front lawn, a bit implausible perhaps, but a devastating image nonetheless. The Ferriers push on, to Boston now, where mom’s parents live. They’re part of a huge stream of refugees, the sort of people we’re used to seeing in newsreels, people with nothing but the clothes on the backs, but these are Americans in their own country. It’s affecting, but as they struggle forward, the nits, ripe for picking, start to accumulate. Where, actually, are all the people going? Why can’t the tripods catch up with them? The military is functioning now, sort of, but no one is doing anything for the hapless civilians. Where do they get food? Where do they go to the bathroom? How can Tom maintain his manly one-day stubble for a week at a time without a personal barber?10
The script doesn’t help. Robbie is getting increasingly aggressive. He wants to fight those tripods, damn it! Stand up and fight! Yeah, but is anyone really that dumb? I’d rather check out Dracula’s tomb at midnight on Friday the thirteenth with nothing more than a sprig of parsley than go toe to toe with a death ray. The script wants to tell us something positive about Robbie, but hasn’t a clue as to how to do it.
The Americans, dispossessed in their own land, flow like lemmings towards a ferry landing, which is somehow still functional. They swarm on board, but unfortunately the ferry, which turns out to be a very large ferry, runs into a submerged tripod. Just a guess, but I’d say that Stevie’s been sitting on a serious case of Titanic envy for the past decade. Hey, Jim! Let me show you how to tip over a boat!
Well, it is a great spectacle, but after the ferry sinks you might as well pack up and quit the multiplex, because War of the Worlds has shot its bolt. Robbie goes off to fight the aliens, while Tom and Rachel hide out in a cellar with creepy Tim Robbins for several days. While they’re there, the aliens send down the galaxy’s largest, and least effective, visual probe. Later, the aliens themselves show up, looking like a cross between spider monkeys and ichneumon flies.11 Absurdly, we see them drinking stale cellar water. Is that why they’re here? They’re thirsty?12
For the rest of the film, Spielberg picks up and discards half a dozen plot points. Tom sees the tripods spraying a red fluid that is surely human blood. Why? To raise this red plant that’s growing everywhere? Is that their food?
In desperation (and, probably, in response to pressure from Cruise), Spielberg throws in some clumsy heroics. Tom grabs a belt of hand grenades from a dead soldier just as a giant arm swoops down and carries him up into one of the tripods. He’s thrown into a steel cage full of other humans. One by one, they’re being sucked up into a giant red vagina, which has a long tentacle that comes out and grabs you.13 Tom gets dragged in, but the valiant humans, led by a black guy, team together and pull him out. While he was inside, Tom released the pins on two of the grenades, which, implausibly, is enough to destroy the entire tripod while allowing the humans to fall safely to earth.
After this fiasco, there’s nothing left but the final, crushing irony. The aliens are dying! They can’t handle our microbes! The end!14
Back in 1898, when H.G. Wells (right) first came up with the tale, this was a viable twist, more or less. Most people unthinkingly assumed that another “world” would be essentially like this one, same air, same water, etc. Today almost everyone knows that the odds that a human could survive on the surface of another planet unprotected are about a trillion to one against. The aliens would have had that covered before they showed up. And if they didn’t, they would have found out the hard way thousands of years ago when they first planted the tripods. And, hey, if they were here thousands of years ago, why didn’t they just take over then? And how did they know where we would build our cities?15 Steve? Steve?
- Well, this is a bit harsh. Despite too many “Hollywood” touches, Schindler’s List has some real guts and will last. [↩]
- Yeah, those union rules are so much crap, aren’t they? I’m sure the crew enjoyed this line, courtesy of Mr. Billionaire. Try thinking about the little people once in a while, Stevo, you fucking plutocrat! [↩]
- I’m guessing that this is the Mustang that Spielberg pined for in high school. But why would a 21st-century thirty-something bad-ass want to drive a car that came out the year he was born? [↩]
- Robbie is supposed to be working on a term paper for school, on “French colonialism in Algeria.” Puhleeeze! Al Qaeda is all the Frenchies’ fault, Stevo? I think Chirac is a bigger ass than Bush, though the competition is fierce, but I’m gagging on this one big time. [↩]
- In the Bible, Rachel the wife of Jacob is the feminine symbol of Israel, a hardly unexpected sign that War of the Worlds will be a parable about both 9/11 and the Holocaust. Surprisingly, Rachel’s mom is named Mary Ann, the classic Catholic girl’s name. (St. Ann was the Blessed Virgin’s mother. [↩]
- We learn this because the kids are watching TV, a form of exposition that I always find tediously lame. Stevo hides an in-joke here. As the kids are changing channels, we glimpse a shot of a train smacking into a car. The clip is from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, the first film Spielberg ever saw. The event was a serious downer for Spielberg because he thought he was going to see areal circus. I’m just guessing, but I wonder if Spielberg also saw the trailer for War of the Worlds during his first visit to a movie theater. [↩]
- Borrowing from a genius is always dangerous. It can invite comparisons! [↩]
- He seems just a bit too inarticulate here. Can’t he explain the ash as the result of “fires”? Can’t he tell the kids that there’s danger, real danger, that they have to stick together, that they have to do what he says? [↩]
- Throughout history, Jews have endlessly been persecuted by Christians for this reason (among others). Misery loves company, but desperation demands it. [↩]
- George Clooney managed the same trick in Three Kings, a film that I did not enjoy. [↩]
- Female ichneumon flies, harmless to humans (fortunately), have enormously enlarged hind legs to allow them to handle the world’s wickedest ovipositor. [↩]
- Later, the tripod starts honking, so they head back like sailors on shore leave in a WWII flick. Damn! I was hoping to get some pussy this time around! [↩]
- No, it doesn’t make any sense to me, either. It’s Steven’s fantasy, not mine. I don’t get to see vaginas much anymore, but I came out of one and they’ve always treated me square. [↩]
- Well, almost. Tom and Rachel make it to the grandfolks’ house. They’re OK! Mom’s OK! Robbie’s there, and he’s OK! Even pretty boy (it’s not clear to me that mom’s boyfriend ever gets a name), he’s OK! As another in joke, Spielberg uses Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, who appeared in the 1953 WW, as the grandparents. [↩]
- I suppose that economic geography of alien worlds is a feasible discipline, but still. [↩]