One of the more solidly crafted science fiction films in a while, "War of the Worlds" is about as far from quintessential 'nice' Steven Spielberg as you can get - which is why that makes this one of his better mainstream entertainment vehicles since "Jurassic Park". Taking the HG Wells original story and following it more closely than expected (from the tripod designs, to the all too rushed and almost anti-climactic deus ex machina ending), Spielberg creates an alien invasion movie that can be labelled the antithesis to the likes of "Independence Day" or the ilk.
The reason? The personal perspective. Rather than showing off the bigger focus of said invasion and the 'power players' you'd see in the likes of these movies (world leaders, leading scientists, etc.) this stays purely locked on one disjointed family. After a quiet ten minute introduction which plays out like your average family drama - in this case a pissed off divorcee dad finds his kids a hassle whilst they simply resent him - the film kicks into gear. There's two scenes involving conversations in two different basements that run for about five minutes each, other than that, this is essentially one non-stop action sequence that never lets up. Even those two quiet scenes are followed by two of the film's best scenes, the first of which made me shudder from its impact - something I can't recall doing in a movie in years.
"War" is an example of what both true science fiction (not that Lucas swashbuckling fantasy kiddie stuff) and the B-movie genre can achieve. Koepp's script has practically no plot short of some large broad strokes, character development is both minimal and predictable, various sequences do feel derivative and repetitive. Yet its enthralling and cleverly lays out its beats perfectly, almost never letting its pace drop and never falling into traps. There's no attempts at humour, patriotic speeches, pontificating or politics. The dialogue practically never sounds too cheesy (aside from Tim Robbins, the one weak character in the film). Indeed I looked for it but the words 'alien' or 'martian' never appear, its simply 'them' or they come from 'elsewhere'.
As much as I enjoyed "Revenge of the Sith" and loved "Batman Begins" this Summer, both have some big flaws relating to their ambitious scripts which reached further than their writers could live up to - the result was some hokey dialogue or moments which didn't feel right. Koepp's script on the whole isn't as well conceived or grand, but by keeping the focus tight and personal he avoids some of the pitfalls. There's one or two creaky points such as the convenient newsvan scene which serves as exposition central (although its gotten over with quickly thank god) or the somewhat ridiculous second last ending, but Koepp for the most part keeps our knowledge of events limited to what our main trio know. The lack of character development won't be seen as a good thing by some, even if the film uses that to its advantage by never having these characters break out into unrealistic monologues spilling out background information. Its a simple no frills cautionary tale that's smartly told, no more or less.
Make no mistake though, this is not a happy blockbuster - "War of the Worlds" is a bleak and desolate movie in a hardcore unrelenting way. In fact "Saving Private Ryan" (with the exception of its opening 20 minutes) is in many ways a 'nicer' Spielberg film than this. Its not an R-rated film but pushes damn close to that boundary and is more shocking than some with the stricter rating such as the last few minutes set within Robbins' basement which involves both a brutal act and a hideous revelation about the somewhat mishandled 'red weed' element. Even quieter scenes ranging from Dakota's shocking discovery whilst taking a piss to little moments of people caught in collateral damage cause chills.
Performances are strong all across the board too. For the first time in ages Tom Cruise seemed to be playing someone other than Tom Cruise. Despite all the hype and somewhat ingratiating public appearances lately which haven't exactly been beneficial to his public profile, seeing him in action on screen again you realise the guy is a solid actor. In a role that's almost purely reactionary in tone and could be seen as somewhat hokey in other hands, Cruise brings a necessary gravitas. Kudos should go out to all the supporting cast too - Fanning finally seemed to be playing someone her age (albeit still too smart), Chatwin makes a rebelious teen character actually sympathetic, even Otto's tiny screentime brings some of the film's few smiles.
Like I said the only bum note is Robbins. Not because of the actor mind you, but more the character. Whilst Spielberg's film liberally borrows elements from plenty of other sci-fi great films, one wonders why he had to import the stereotypical gun nut style character with his incessant whinging - maybe to act as counterpoint to Cruise (if so he could've done a lot better). Up until that point in the film this had been a pure action movie, from then on it changes tone to become something darker and more suspense-oriented. Its also when the film changes from Cruise and company being merely reactive to somewhat proactive including a rather stupid bit involving cages and an alien orifice that'll make me avoid getting close to female genitalia ever again. The end solution falls along the lines of Wells tale which seems almost anachronistic and all too much of a cop out that will leave modern crowds with a somewhat sinking feeling.
The look of the film is superb. From the ILM effects which are far better and less cartoonish than they've been in a while, to the superb designs of the tripods - the only bum note are the aliens themselves which seem like an ID4/Carebear hybrid. The disintegration beams are beautifully handled, especially with their after effect which renders one scene in the film to look like something out of a Calvin Klein commercial. Spielberg also tries his hand at being Robert 'trick shot' Zemeckis with a single shot take revolving in and around a moving van. Not only is the shot good, its actually used for one of the film's best 'quieter' moments involving Dakota working out her 'personal space'. There's various laughable continuity errors from the somewhat selective effects of the EMP to the way it seems the roads are magically clear for driving a car through but these are pure nitpicks at best and don't retract from the film at all really.
So what are the real flaws? By retaining such a simple premise the film does tread over itself - more than once our trio of family heroes escape death or injury quite conveniently. Scenes of mass panic and hysteria are done convincingly but are hardly new. I love the basement 'roving eye' sequence but it feels very "Abyss" water tentacle-ish, I enjoyed the disgusting display of human selfishness in the scene with people scrambling to get into the car - even though I saw the same scene in "Day of the Triffids" over a decade ago. Various shots and sequences borrow from the best of the genre and despite its well told edge, there's an almost cold distancing effect the film generates though its hard to tell if that's deliberate or not. At times it desperately tries to become something more by squeezing in bits of subtext about various issues ranging from parental to paranoia. Those moments feel forced into what is essentially a streamlined and pure entertainment vehicle.
There's been a surprising amount of above average mainstream films this season, which seem to just keep getting better. On a technical and visceral level though "Worlds" can fairly be called one of the best Summer films so far. It's the Spielberg of old, simple but smart entertainment. It'll be loved by his fans, but its far from perfect and the coldness and brutality (undermined in the worst possible way by the cheesily happy ending) will stop it from being remembered or rewatched in the same way his far superior crowd pleasing efforts like "Raiders" or "Jaws" are. Its a B movie, but if you can get over the few but fatal shortcomings it has - WHAT a B movie.