Dakota Fanning brings the raw emotional terror of alien invasion to life in Steven Spielberg’s visually stunning but narratively stunted War Of The Worlds (2005)

I’ve always had a love for H G Wells’ “The War Of The Worlds”, borne out of many a childhood listen to Jeff Wayne’s musical version. While I enjoy the contemporary 1950s version and even the pre-MAGA patriotic fever dream of “Independence Day” (less so its dumber than dumb cousin “Battleship”), I’ve always kind of yearned for an authentic adaptation of the novel, set in the proper time period and exploring the alien invasion from an authentically Victorian – and British – perspective. When Spielberg’s adaptation of the story was first announced, I hoped that this would be the one I had been waiting for, but alas it was not to be. Still, as we find ourselves on the eve of the BBC finally bringing a period-set version of the tale to the small screen, I decided to revisit the 2005 offering.

“War Of The Worlds” is unlikely to top anyone’s list of Spielberg’s cinematic masterpieces and while it may be ‘lesser’ Spielberg to some, that still gives it a fighting chance of being in the upper echelons of movies in general. Aware of how many previous adaptations there have been, Spielberg wisely brings his focus tight around the fractured family of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) – a surrogate for the evidently splintered and factional human race and in doing so makes this a story less about alien invasion and more about how fragile and vulnerable society itself is when faced with disruption and crisis.

Unfortunately, at times, the relentless focus on the family conflict sometimes bogs the film down in soapy melodrama especially in relation to the Ray’s eldest child Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who’s badly underwritten, evidenced by how much the film picks up once he’s rather unceremoniously written.

Ultimately, like the invading Martian death machines, the film stands on its own tripod: three factors, two of which propel it towards greatness and one which holds it back. The first firm footing the film has is in its Director. Spielberg’s visual genius, and the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, suffuse nearly every frame with bleak yet beautiful imagery. Yes, some of the visual flourishes are just indulgences, the wow factor overriding logic, such as the floating clothes of Martian victims which make for a macabre and memorable visual but a weapon which incinerates flesh but leaves clothes untouched makes zero sense, especially to an invading force which seeks to use humans as a food source. It’s undeniably cool looking, though.

Spielberg certainly doesn’t hold back the darkness in this film, though, and he delivers a plane crash aftermath which tops the one “Lost” delivered a year before while the train on fire and the attack on the ferry are similarly standout sequences. There’s some real darkness on offer too, arguably darker than anything Speilberg has embraced before – in one of his action-adventure movies that is – such as the family drowning in the cars falling off the ferry and, especially, the river of corpses which take Rachel (Dakota Fanning) by surprise during one of the movie’s deceptively peaceful moments.

Dakota Fanning is the second factor which gives “War Of The Worlds” its power. Her performance is simply astonishing and she absolutely should have been in the running for Best Supporting Actress, at the very least. Time and time again, she absolutely nails the emotional intensity of a world gone awry from a child’s point of view and provides a chilling evocation of the very real, present day horror of having to raise a child into an increasingly violent, dangerous and unpleasant world.

The film’s third factor, the one that works against it, is its star, Tom Cruise. His performance is actually pretty good but he’s badly miscast as the blue-collar asshole divorced selfish asshole who’s not really interested in his kids but finds himself stuck with them during the crisis. He feels far too clean-cut, square-jawed and heroic to really deliver the necessary grittiness of the role and it works against the film and the family story Spielberg’s trying to tell and so it’s no surprise when most of that dynamic fades quickly from the performances even as the script tries to continue fanning the flames of the conflict. Ironically, it might have worked much better if Tim Robbins and Tom Cruise had swapped roles. Robbins would have been more believable and layered as the deadbeat dad while anyone who’s seen Cruise’s Oprah’s couch moment can attest to how convincing he is as a delusional maniac.

The finale feels very abrupt but it’s mostly down to the breakneck pacing of the film up to that point and actually, it doesn’t really end so much as just kind of stop. It’s something of a misstep for the rescue from the basket of the tripod to be the defacto action finale set-piece which should probably have been reserved for a better showdown between the dregs of the US Army and the afflicted invaders than we get to see. It’s a nice nod the fifties version of the story to give Gene Barry and Ann Robinson cameos at the very end, but it’s also here that the movie makes its most egregious mistake by bringing back Robbie, alive and well, undermining everything the audience has just seen the other characters endure.

It’s a polished sci-fi disaster epic that with a few casting changes could have been something really special and, while it’s never not nice to hear the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman’s voice, his opening and closing narrations feel a little unnecessary.

7/10 

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