Tuesday, July 05, 2005

War of the Worlds: The review

This is the first film review at The Reaction, but that has largely to do with the fact that I just don't see as many first-run movies as I used to. Back in my college days, I was the film critic for The Tufts Daily, and, if I had to do it all over again, well, maybe I'd give cinema a shot. For now, a short review of the new Spielberg-Cruise blockbuster.

On a one-to-four star-scale: *

That's one star. Thumb down, way down, in other words. War of the Worlds is arguably Spielberg's worst movie -- yes, worse than Hook, worse than The Lost World. The story is a familiar one, and I won't do plot summary here. Suffice it to say that there are barely any redeeming qualities. The dialogue is contrived, the acting is forced, and the plot, such as there is one, makes little sense. Cruise plays his typical character: outwardly hyper-masculine, but vulnerable, the all-American protagonist with just enough flaws to make him human and believable. But it's all too obvious here. He's a bad parent, and his relationships with his two children, played by the annoying Justin Chatwin and the truly insufferable Dakota Fanning, in the face of apocalypse by alien invasion are ridiculously overdone.

And nothing much about that invasion makes much sense. Are they vaporizing the humans? Eating them? Using them to fertilize the earth? All in all, the story is simply unpleasant, with none of the magic that Spielberg typically brings to even his most mainstream movies. Minority Report, for example, may have its problems, not least its tacked-on ending, but there's a wide-eyed brilliance to it that sets it apart from so much of what Hollywood has to offer, year after uncreative year. War of the Worlds, for its part, is pure action, perhaps, interspersed with those inane familial interactions and a badly drawn-out encounter with a loopy Tim Robbins, but the action consists simply of impractical alien tripods mowing down countless victims and everyone else running for their lives and occasionally killing one another. And the ending? Perhaps the worst ending to any movie in recent memory, a completely unfathomable tying of the loose ends that is meant, I suppose, to redeem Cruise's flawed character. Oh, and don't even ask how the aliens are finally defeated. You really don't want to know. Even the so-so ending of Signs, a vastly superior film, is easier to take.

War of the Worlds is a laughable, groan-inducing effort from America's premier mainstream filmmaker. Hard to believe, indeed, that this man made Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Minority Report, even Amistad and Catch Me If You Can. Hard to believe, too, that so many critics have hailed it as a masterpiece (or at least as a near-masterpiece). Metacritic, which aggregates reviews from around North America, gives it a fairly good 72 (out of 100). At least Roger Ebert, usually one of Spielberg's biggest boosters, was calm enough to give it a paltry two stars and a definitive thumbs down, but Slate's David Edelstein called it "a sci-fi masterpiece" (see here) and the Times's A.O. Scott called Spielberg "a master of pure action filmmaking" (see here). Scott may be right, but War of the Worlds is proof that he doesn't always have it.

The best thing to come out of War of the Worlds may be Frank Rich's latest Sunday column in the Times, which links the movie back to President Bush's Fort Bragg speech of last week:
Mr. Spielberg's movie illuminates... how Mr. Bush has flubbed the basic storytelling essential to sustain public support for his Iraq adventure. The president has made a tic of hammering in melodramatic movie tropes: good vs. evil, you're with us or you're with the terrorists, "wanted dead or alive," "bring 'em on," "mission accomplished." When you relay a narrative in that style, the audience expects you to stick to the conventions of the genre; the story can end only with the cavalry charging in to win the big final battle. That's how Mr. Spielberg deploys his platoons, "Saving Private Ryan"-style, in "War of the Worlds." By contrast, Mr. Bush never marshaled the number of troops needed to guarantee Iraq's security and protect its borders; he has now defined "mission accomplished" down from concrete victory to the inchoate spreading of democracy. To start off sounding like Patton and end up parroting Woodrow Wilson is tantamount to ambushing an audience at a John Wayne movie with a final reel by Frank Capra...

The president has no one to blame but himself. The color-coded terror alerts, the repeated John Ashcroft press conferences announcing imminent Armageddon during election season, the endless exploitation of 9/11 have all taken their numbing toll. Fear itself is the emotional card Mr. Bush chose to overplay, and when he plays it now, he is the boy who cried wolf. That's why a film director engaging in utter fantasy can arouse more anxiety about a possible attack on America than our actual commander in chief hitting us with the supposed truth.

Well, no, War of the Worlds actually arouses more discontent at the sheer stupidity of it all than "anxiety about a possible attack on America," but otherwise Rich is, as usual, provocatively astute.

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  • You're right, Nate, and I've gone back and modified what I wrote. I don't do that very often, but I hadn't written what I meant in the first place.

    Although, I'm a big fan of Rich (which, obviously, you aren't). His analyses are often forced, I agree, but I usually find him enormously compelling and persuasive. To me, he's absolutely the best reason to read the Times' op-ed pages.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:25 PM  

  • This review is horrible. Maybe you should have gone with a basic plot summary since obviously you don't know it too well yourself. "Oh and dont even ask how the aliens are finally defeated." Well try the same exact way they were in the book.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:08 AM  

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