War of the Worlds | movie review
Is it really a war? There are grimmer words that might be more appropriate...
Movie summary: An alien invasion threatens the future of humanity. The catastrophic nightmare is depicted through the eyes of one American family fighting for survival. (IMDb)
Watching War of the Worlds again for this review was a weird experience - my memory of watching it more than once before is that I'd very much enjoyed it both times, yet I found myself seriously questioning that perception after the first thirty minutes. It's one hell of a rough start, but the quality climbs pretty quickly and there are a lot of truly fantastic sequences that more than make up for it by the end.
The reason it's a tough start for me is because there's no-one really likeable to latch on to - in fact, I would say the same thing about them all as people by the end of the film too, more like a certain level of respect and admiration for getting through what they did. I can definitely see why other people might well be put off the movie completely though.
For starters, it's one of the rare Tom Cruise roles where he's a dick, playing a deadbeat dad by the name of Ray Ferrier, whose kids get dropped off for him to look after while his pregnant ex and her new partner head off. His son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), is the worst of the bunch, being a moody teen who seems to want to rebel against his dad for not caring about them while giving Ray every reason to get pissed off with him.
Then there's a very young Dakota Fanning's performance as Ray's daughter, Rachel, who seems to swing from creepily mature to screaming toddler-like tween, very rarely acting her age because it's more dramatic that way - I don't think this is down to Spielberg though, who has proven he can direct enjoyable, interesting kids as part of the cast over and over again in his career, but more how the role was written.
Their family dynamic can be frustrating to watch at times, but once the alien tripods emerge from underground to start the 'war' (it's more like an extermination than anything), their relationships actually help to both ground the action and sell the audience on the spectacle they're seeing - if both sides of an antagonistic relationship think something is terrifying, it does have the effect of making you believe it more too.
And the spectacles that unfold are amazing. I'm not going to spoil any here, but there are so many incredible set pieces and sequences that it does start becoming frankly ridiculous how easy Spielberg makes it all look, with most of them surpassing modern-day blockbusters for just how real it all feels. Despite the premise of an alien invasion, everything feels so real and tactile that there's a level of authenticity to everything we see that just draws you further and further into the movie.
There is a strange side sequence with Tim Robbins' paranoid delusional, Harlan, that isn't bad per se - the tensest moments of War of the Worlds, including a silent struggle between Ray and Harlan - are in this sequence, but it does feel like it belongs to another movie. Saying that, it does cement the growing bond between Ray and Rachel, so it's certainly not something you could just cut out without weakening the film.
This certainly isn't a movie that will appeal to everyone, because there is a lot to dislike and most of it is intentional. I would argue that the main characters coming across just as annoying, bickering and irritating as people have proven to be during the last few years actually makes the movie a lot better - and I would certainly recommend seeing it just for the expertise Spielberg displays in showing off some amazing - and often unsettling - sights like the master moviemaker he is.
War of the Worlds is something of an underrated movie, especially considering it's directed by Spielberg, mainly because I think the obvious flaws that are at their worst at the very start of the movie puts people off enjoying the numerous incredible sequences that pepper the story from then on. And, seeing Tom Cruise play an arsehole is always fun and I really wish he'd do it more.