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WotW all Spielberged out the wahzoo!

I said at the start of my Batman Begins review that this was a great time for fanboys, such as myself. I then went on to the praise the new Batman title as it was a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. Now, here we are, War of the Worlds has hit screens. Batman was good, really good… Surely it would be too much to ask for two sci-fi/fantasy movies in a row to be any good.. right? Surely there’s some kind of cost involved? For every good sci-fi/fantasy movie we get we have to endure a dozen or so real stinkers? It seems to work that way… so, do we start paying for Batman Begins with War of the Worlds? Or can we put this one on the tab?

Spielberg has enjoyed an unsurpassed reputation as a director, his films are stamped into the cinema hall of fame and polished vigorously as examples of his stellar abilities as a film maker. He is often referred to as being the king of the special effects film, however to me there’s always been an odd duality about Spielberg which can be witnessed on a small scale within his films and, on a larger scale, by comparing them.

There’s no doubt that Spielberg is a masterful film maker, War of the Worlds stands as a testament to that, nonetheless I was skeptical as to whether or not I was going to enjoy this movie. I’ve been ‘burnt’ by the last few Spielberg Sci-Fi outings and wasn’t sure that I could take another dose of, what I like to call, ‘Spielberg’s sugar cure’. Let me explain:

I’ll use a scene from 2002’s Minority Report to illustrate my point, however many examples can be found throughout Spielberg’s Sci-fi catalogue. There’s a scene in Minority Report, in which the protagonist is cornered in an alleyway by a team of law enforcement officers. What ensues is a fight scene is which the protagonist fights for his freedom against said law enforcement officers and their ‘vomit inducing whacking sticks’. Now, taking into account the drama of this scene and the fact that this story was written by Philip K Dick (the same dark mind who bought us Blade Runner) why the hell did Spielberg feel the need to include segments like the one where an officer and the protagonist are propelled (by jet pack) through the window of a young student, interrupting her saxophone lesson? HILARITY! And if that wasn’t bad enough, the same grappling duo come flying up through the floor interrupting a family dinner! MORE HILARITY!
In a film, clearly not intended to be viewed by children, why on earth include scenes like those? Why would Spielberg feel the need to ‘lighten’ these moments of drama with these, Lucas like, childish, comic relief. Why? I don’t know – but it sure annoys the crap out of me!

The best kind of Sci-fi, in my opinion, is the dark gritty kind: Alien, Equilibrium, Blade Runner. And, in my opinion, Spielberg had yet let himself fully explore dark, gritty fantasy. In essence, what I’ve always wanted from Spielberg is Saving Private Elliot.

The release of War of the Worlds marks the end of a progressive Journey for Spielberg, at long last he has given in to the dark side. Last night, while I was discussing this movie with a friend, he commented “Let’s face it, Steven Spielberg is back to making the kind of movies he made when we were kids”. He couldn’t have been further from the mark. The Spielberg who made ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ or ‘E.T’ could never have made this movie.
In a recent interview Spielberg himself said: “Close Encounters was about a man whose insatiable curiosity, more than just curiosity, developed into an obsession and the kind of psychic implantation drew him away from his family and, only looking back once, he walked onto the mother ship. That was before I had kids. That was 1977. So I wrote that blithely. Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family to go on the mother ship. I would have the guy doing everything he could to protect his children”.
Be it by design (to help promote this latest movie) or an honest revelation, Spielberg has summed up the driving force for the lead character in War of the Worlds.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is forced to come to terms with the realities of family and fatherhood when the world is sent into panic after a series of mysterious storms herald the emergence of merciless machines. Weekend father, Ray, attempts to flee New Jersey with his estranged children Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) as, around them, people are exterminated by the unstoppable machines.

With the exception of the inclusion of a character name (Tim Robbins’ Ogilvy, who bares little resemblance to the character of the same name from the H.G.Wells novel) the plot of this incarnation of War of the Worlds has nothing to do with the characters known by those familiar with the novel. However Spielberg’s War of the Worlds adheres to the technical aspects of the major events and outcome of the Wells novel. While this was enough to make me happy, I’m sure that others, who have a greater emotional investment in the original story, will feel somewhat betrayed. More so, those who are entirely unfamiliar with the notions dealt with in the novel, may feel unsatisfied by the movies ending. Those aspects aside, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds stands as possibly the greatest invasion movie to date.

The intensity of this movie is undeniable. If you are not totally captivated by this, from beginning to end, I thoroughly suggest having yourself tested for attention deficit disorder. Spielberg’s skill at using special effects is best summed up by a quote from an episode of Futurama, “If you do something right, people wont be sure you’ve done anything at all”. Huge chunks of this movie had to have been 90 percent CGI, however at no point are you drawn to that fact. I don’t recall thinking “Wow, great effect!” at any point while watching the film, I do however, recall thinking “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!” many times. Such is Spielberg’s ability to immerse you in the events by keeping the special effects from starring in the movie.

One could probably be forgiven for thinking that the world is currently under attack from Tom Cruise himself. He seems to be everywhere, on every screen and magazine cover and, were he not so often punching the air or jumping up and down on chairs, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to remind people of what a fantastic actor he can be. War of the Worlds is possibly Cruise’s most vulnerable performance. His smart mouth, irresponsible exterior is torn away as the true nature of his responsibilities and situation are revealed to him.
Josh Friedman’s screenplay takes Cruise’s character to some extremely dark places, forces upon him the realization that his actions have consequences and then forces him to make the kinds of choices that no man should ever have to make. While there is a ‘hero moment’ for Ray Ferrier, it’s more about his growth as a human. However, because of it’s adherence to the original notions of the novel, there really is no ‘hero moment’ for humanity… thankfully, at no point, does Randy Quaid fly a fighter jet into the heart of the alien mothership and there’s no uploading of a computer virus from an old Powerbook 1400.

War of the Worlds is one of the most stunning movies I’ve seen, ever. I said, after seeing Batman Begins the other week, that it would be hard for any movie to do better this year – I wasn’t counting on Spielberg. My concerns about his ability to ‘do’ dark sci-fi properly have now expired.

My only instruction would be for those unfamiliar with the novel to familiarize themselves with its outcome prior to seeing the movie. Ask someone who’s read the novel, heard the radio play or has the concept album what happens in the end – Trust me on this one. If you go in looking for Randy Quaid to yell “I’m BACK!”, you will be extremely disappointed.

(This review was originally posted at gamespace)

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