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Earth Hits the Fan
by Lucius Shepard
July 1, 2005

". . .  Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us . . ."

Those words, which might well describe the DreamWorks team, their self-image and calculated approach to world domination, form a portion of the opening of H.G. Wells� The War of the Worlds, a novel that shares a title (minus the antiquated first "The") and a basic plot with Steven Spielberg�s latest movie; yet the two properties have little in common thematically. Wells� novel was essentially a reaction to the unification and militarization of Germany, and, like most of his science fiction, viewed human nature and human destiny in a pessimistic light. It would be interesting if a movie were to be crafted from those materials (actually, I just learned that such a movie does exist, Timothy Hines� H. G. Wells� War of the Worlds, though I haven�t watched it). Until that happens we have, instead, Byron Haskin�s 1953 B-picture starring Gene Barry, and now the remake, starring the equally gifted Tom Cruise, which embodies Spielberg�s desire to maximize corporate profits and is infused with . . . no, make that drenched in, a Wal-Mart-simple, Wal-Mart-sized dose of American Family Values�. You know, the kind of values that a goodly number of Americans have a childlike faith in, but don�t exist outside of Norman Rockwell paintings, Disneyland, and the movies. As opposed to the novel, which conveys the funereal sadness that arises from a historical loss of innocence, Spielberg�s values message is so much in the foreground that the film comes across, ultimately, as a lesson in parental responsibility, with the loss of a billion lives rendered as an ancillary matter and the alien invasion serving more as an alien intervention.

War of the Worlds has been widely publicized as the most expensive picture Spielberg has yet directed (maybe the most expensive of All Time!), which may portend he�s getting desperate in his efforts to persuade us that everything happens for a reason and love is all you need bippety boppity boo�desperate enough, at any rate, to cast America�s living Amber Alert, the �ber-waif Dakota Fanning, as the fragile, oft-menaced symbol of those values. There�s no one who can stare out a car window in terror and/or confusion like Dakota, and Spielberg takes full advantage of her talent. In fact, not only does he show Dakota staring in every possible setting�in cars, basements, on ferry landings, etc.�but also he has chosen to feature her other major talent, a piercing scream, treating us to a variety of sonic stylings not heard on the planet since Janis Joplin was in full throat.

You all know the story, or you should. The Martians invade and basically kick our collective butt. People flee before a terrible, implacable force. Or, as DreamWorks would have it: "As Earth is invaded by alien tripod fighting machines, one family fights for survival." That family, the Ferriers, Daddy Ray (Cruise), kiddies Robbie (Justin Chatwick) and Rachel (Fanning), and Mommy Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), are typically Spielbergian: a good-hearted American family; semi-precocious kids with a smidgen of dysfunctionality; parents divorced; dad not yet a grown-up, a diminutive dockworker who drives a muscle car and stops just short of being a deadbeat . . . yet this won�t prevent him, armed with only a primitive implement (a grenade), from facing down, before movie�s end, an alien monstrosity (a 100-foot-high tripod equipped with something like lasers), and shouting, "Keep away from my daughter, you filthy bastard!" or some such expression of bravado twisted into a tagline. (Actually, they eschew the tagline, but it�s there in spirit.) Spielberg�s success as a director is chiefly due to the fact that he portrays Americans as we like to see ourselves: a simple, good-hearted people, a little dysfunctional, but boy-oh-boy are we ever endlessly brave and resourceful when aliens threaten our precious kinder. As a defender of American Family Values�, Spielberg yields primacy to no one, not Jerry Falwell, not Michael Medved, not even Michael Ovitz.

With Bayonne, New Jersey, subbing for Wells� England, Ray Ferrier experiences a jot of character-establishing dysfunctionality with his wife, who�s dumping the kids on him for the weekend�she�s off to Boston with her new husband to visit her parents�and then coaxes his daughter Rachel to step outside so as to view some churning, eerily glowing clouds, precisely the sort of cloud formation that purely screams, Aliens!, to anyone who�s ever seen a movie, especially a Spielberg movie. The clouds pass over, spitting lightnings that transmit an EMP, shutting down every electrical device in the area (except digital cameras, apparently)�twenty-six bolts that all strike the exact same spot, dead center of an intersection in downtown Bayonne. A crowd gathers in to gaze in wonderment at the hole created, and, in the movie�s best scene, the first of the tripods emerges from its subterranean hideout, thrusting up chunks of asphalt, shouldering aside buildings�turns out the lightning has also transported an alien crew aboard the machine�and strides through the town, emitting foghorn blasts and slaughtering people with a weapon that incinerates them into a substance that greatly resembles 9/11 ash. This is the first of many 9/11 references in the film, including poster boards with the names and photos of the missing, personal items raining from the sky, a crashed airliner, etc. When conjoined with blood-sucking aliens and gigantic death-dealing tripods, these references don�t come across as much topical as they do exploitative, trivializing, and tasteless.

Anyway, Ray gets the kids out of the house and into the only functioning car in the vicinity, and they head for Boston and Mom, becoming part of the horde of refugees fleeing along the highways. During this sequence, despite an almost non-stop scream-a-thon by Rachel, Spielberg manages to generate some tension. The chaos of their flight; the panic and desperation of the refugees, shown most clearly in a scene wherein Ray is carjacked by a mob, some of whom pry at the shattered windshield with bloody fingers; the sight of a passenger train in flames racing along a track; the choice Ray is forced to make between his children when his rebellious teenage son runs off to join a hopeless battle that ends with a valley turned into a bowl of fire�all this is managed credibly and with some panache, although it never completely succeeds in making you forget that somewhere close by is an AD shouting action (for a more successful take on western refugees fleeing a disaster, see Michael Haeneke�s Time of the Wolf, starring Isabelle Huppert). But then, right when you�re getting set to dig your knees into the seat in front of you, preparing for bigger and better shocks, Spielberg sucks the energy out of his film by depositing Rachel and Ray into the basement of a battered house with Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) for a half-hour, a good deal of it taken up by Robbins doing a whack-job take on his Davy Boyle character from Mystic River. Granted, a version of this scene is included in both the book and the original movie, but in those instances it acts as a peak moment of suspense�here it does not. With Ogilvy mugging and muttering all the while, the three avoid capture when an alien device snakes into the basement; but as handled by Spielberg, this scene reminds one far too much of the velociraptors-in-the-kitchen scene in Jurassic Park to be effective. Another incursion, this by the aliens themselves (they look rather Gollumesque, more suited to a film like Mars Attacks), who snoot about examining family photographs and the like, creates an odd tone-break, during which Spielberg indulges in an in-joke with a bicycle a la E.T., a moment that strikes an incongruous note when you consider that these are the same "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" who have been laying waste to Planet Earth and have a penchant for sucking the blood out of people through enormous metal straws.

When at length they emerge from the cellar, not only has the tension been dissipated, but the entire look of the film has changed. From the naturalistic grays of the early scenes, the more-or-less naturalistic hues of the night shots, when Rachel wanders out of the ruined basement to be snatched up into the sky by a metal tentacle, we are immersed in luminous reds (the hue of the alien growths that crop up wherever the tripods pass, fertilized by human blood) and other day-glo-ish shades, a color scheme and attendant camera style that calls to mind William Menzies� Fifties-paranoia classic Invaders from Mars. Since Spielberg is far too knowledgeable a film wonk for this to be accidental, one must assume that this is a misstep, another break in tone that diminishes the effectiveness of the ensuing scene by rendering it as fantasy. Indeed, the scene might have come off as fantasy under any circumstance: Ray, armed with two grenades, allows himself to be snatched up into the tripod, deposited in a metal basket that rides along beneath the body of the machine and holds several dozen people, who are plucked singly out of the basket and drawn through a kind of flexible nipple into the craft to serve, presumably, as a snack. In something of an upset, considering the machine has spent thousands of years encysted deep underground and has proved capable of forcing its way up through layers of earth and stone, two grenades introduced to its interior are sufficient to blow it to smithereens�but we are accustomed to Hollywood grenades having that type of supernal power. Naturally Rachel and Ray survive the fall and are soon high-tailing it toward the ruins of Boston where the microbes have already begun their invasion-repelling work and a sappy ending awaits, the whole family improbably reunited, standing as though posed in the doorway of their apparently alien-proof Boston home, Mommy, Step-Daddy, two perfect white-haired grandparents played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson of the original movie, and, El Shockamundo!, Robbie, the most unlikely survivor of all.

Spielberg loves the smell of sentiment in the morning.

But sentiment at the expense of narrative honesty?

Nobody should love that.

In truth, as horrid as the ending is, the movie has come apart long before reaching that point, and it was never much to begin with. Forget the logical gaffes, and there are plenty of those, too many to mention, War of the Worlds fits into Spielberg�s work the way Cronenberg�s eXistenZ fits into his, as a sort of greatest-hits package�there�s the theme of human genocide, there�s an implacable menace bigger and nastier than Jaws, there�s the dysfunctional family, there�s Tom Cruise battling sophisticated machines (Minority Report), there�s the re-imagining of the velociraptor scene, there�s a wee one staring and staring into brilliant light . . . There�s not a single original stroke in the entire picture, and if someone�s going to spend close to 200 million dollars on a movie, you�ve got a right to expect an original stroke or two. Spielberg has the reputation for being a great storyteller, but it�s been thirty years since he knew how to end a movie, lately he�s been having trouble with the middles, and now, midway through the Oughts, he�s not even competent; he directs with an old-man�s halting instincts, falling back on tricks that worked when he was young. The ending of the novel, the destruction of the Martians by the germ that causes the common cold . . . Well, they probably should have come up with a variant ending, a bioweapon or some such, because a 21st-century audience simply won�t buy that creatures who�ve been studying us for millennia wouldn�t know about germs, unless the film�s a period piece. But one way or another, it requires a slow cinematic development; it should gradually dawn upon the dazed survivors, as they wander across a devastated landscape populated by the stunned and the dying, that they have been saved, that life will go on where before there was only the prospect of certain death, and we should experience their confusion, their burgeoning hope, and, finally, their exultation. And the fate of the Ferrier family should be shown in that context, the miniscule human triumph amid the larger human tragedy. But Spielberg, with miserly economy, deals with this business off-handedly, in maybe a minute of screen time, kind of a They�re sick?, huh, wow, Whaddaya-know moment, and relegates an explanation to Morgan Freeman�s voiceover at the end. You see, he could hardly wait to get to the scene that, for him, constitutes the emotional climax, as if the death of millions and the destruction of cities were all no more than the set-up for a really big hug.