By John H. Foote
Can a film be undone by its final scene, by just the final 20 seconds? Can a mere 20 seconds ruin what has transpired for the previous two hours? No words are spoken, but a character re-appears, inexplicably, who we thought dead (who has no business being alive!) and goes to his father, leaving the audience thinking, are you serious … WTF? Armies could not survive the onslaught against humanity but this kid? And worst of all we watch him go over the hill into the inferno taking place on the other side!
I recall a collective groan at the press screening, and again at the public screenings I attended of Steven Spielberg’s’ dark, often brilliant, exciting, deeply unsettling War of the Worlds, a modern retelling of the famous H.G. Wells story about an alien attack on earth. For more than two hours the film is astonishing, a visceral, powerful work about aliens coming here to exterminate mankind, their eyes on resources, mass extermination their goal, total destruction of mankind on their mind. The allegory the director draws between alien attacks and terrorism is startling, alarming even, but when we hear the young daughter scream in horror, “Is it the terrorists?” we understand her primal, raw fear, we get the terror. Visions of the two towers crashing to earth spring to mind, the destruction on the Pentagon forever seared into our minds via the footage on CNN. The mass destruction we see so casually launched in War of the Worlds instantly calls to mind 9/11, though on a greater scale, and with a force we simply cannot fight.
Though an enormously gifted filmmaker with nothing left to prove, Spielberg has made both great films – those for the ages – as well as action films that we do not have to think about, but they are certainly something to see. War of the Worlds falls into the latter category, not a masterpiece, but certainly awe inspiring and filled with a foreboding sense of dread that builds from the first moment the first attack takes place. It demands to be seen, for the performances of Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins, as much for the visual effects in the film, and the stunning production design.
Tom Cruise is well cast as Ray, a blue collar guy divorced from his first wife with whom he fathered two children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), who he is taking care of for the weekend while his ex and her new husband travel to Boston. It is his weekend with his kids, but we recognize right away they have no interest in being with him, nor do they seem to particularly like him. Hardly the model father, Ray keeps a torn apart V-8 engine in his kitchen, has little food in the house, and his fridge is filled with half empty condiment bottles. Just getting off work when the kids arrive, he heads to his bedroom to sleep only to awaken to find chaos beginning. His son, the rebellious Robbie, has taken his car for a joyride, and something is happening in the downtown area. He and Rachel have witnessed a bizarre lightning storm from his backyard, the likes of which he has never before seen, and the air is oddly still. He is, needless to say, terrified.
Ordering his daughter to remain in the house (she does not argue), Ray ventures downtown to find out what all the excitement is. A sink hole has begun in the middle of the street, a crowd has gathered around it and suddenly it drops into the earth, and a massive machine rises out of it, towering over the humans and buildings on the street. A low vibration rises from the machine and almost at once a death ray is emitted that reduces humans to dust upon contact. Panic ensues and Ray runs, sometimes running right through the dust of a person running in front of him. The death ray continues, slaughtering people where they stand, leaving behind only their bone dust and clothing to fall where they stood, the street becoming littered with empty clothing, with dust in the air and slowly gathering on the ground.
By the time Ray gets home he is covered in a grey bone dust of the dead, and he is positively terrified. Primally scared, so frightened he leaps when his children touch him, what he has seen has altered his very existence, and he knows it. Never in his life has he been so completely terrified, and his children see this at once and absorb his fear. Shaking the dust out of his hair, off his body, he is acutely aware of what it is, and it makes him all the more frightened. He tells the kids they have 60 seconds to gather everything they need and can carry, that they are leaving. He commandeers a car that the mechanic has managed to get going and orders the kids and his friend into the car. Behind them we see the oncoming destruction. He closes the door and drives off, leaving the mechanic to be vaporized by the death ray, as his children see for the first time the level of destruction. Bridges crumble, buildings topple, and the death, my God the death they see. Ray heads out of the city, the only car on a sea of stalled vehicles on the freeway, heading away from the aliens’ machines. After a night at the home of the kids and his ex-wife, they awaken to find a massive jet having crashed on their front lawn, brought down by the aliens and the front part of the house gone. A television crew is savaging for supplies on the jet and show Ray what has happened around the globe, thousands of these towering machines exterminating mankind.
They journey on, finding the landscape scorched, bodies everywhere, Robbie’s indignation and rage building, wanting to fight back, to join the military on their quest, but Ray keeps him from joining. They experience further destruction as the aliens descend on wherever there are large groups of people, emerging out of the water, turning over a ferry boat, until finally Robbie runs off to join the army, telling his father he has to do this. Ray, because he loves him, because he knows he can no longer stop him, lets him go, the care of Rachel, falling to him alone. Being a little more than high maintenance, that is a formidable task. They find refuge in the basement of an old farmhouse with a man who they slowly realize has gone mad, who is alerting the aliens to their hideout with his incessant noise, leaving Ray no choice but to dispose of him.
And so it continues, this relentless attack that mankind cannot fight back against. What they do not realize is that the moment the creatures inhaled our air, enter our atmosphere, drank the water, they were doomed, killed by the tiniest creatures on the planet, bacteria. In the end their own arrogance killed them, and their machines topple over like giant toys.
Ray and Rachel make their way to Boston, to his ex-wife’s parents’ home, and sure enough they are there, safe and sound. Rachel runs to her mother, as Ray stands there, finally a father, finally a man they can all be proud of. The new husband and the in-laws are in the doorway and then a battered coat appears, and we realize, with a groan, Robbie has survived. Somehow Robbie has made it past the fighting, the aliens, all of it to come here. Once the groaning stops, we watch him embrace his father, they are at last father and son and proud of each other.
Why Spielberg why? Why not have the ex-wife approach Ray and ask about Robbie (just mouthing his name) a single word, and then Ray gently shakes his head, “no”. Too familiar to Brody telling Hooper about Quint in Jaws (1975)? Perhaps, but clearly the film would have had a greater visceral punch had Robbie remained dead, or his survival unknown to us. Instead we get this sappy ending that nearly undoes the entire two hours which proceeds it.
I think it is fair to say had 9/11 not happened this film would not possess the extraordinary familiarity and power it exerts over the audience. The first time I saw it was with the press, and it was all I thought about for days, before seeing it again with my wife. Though I again hated the last twenty seconds, the film before it was a thrilling nightmare of a ride. The visual effects artists were at the top of their game and that bellow that came from the tripod walkers was a fore bearer of doom, haunting, truly terrifying. And Spielberg serves up many terrifying images that linger in the mind long after the film has ended, that first vicious attack on the unsuspecting humans, bridges blown to bits, the bodies floating downriver, the screaming train in flames hurtling down the track, and Ray’s capture, finally getting some retribution with a hand grenade.
The performances were exceptional, especially Cruise and Fanning, who bounced off one another nicely. Older than her years, Dakota Fanning has always been a wonder of an actress, wise at five, and here she is at her finest. As high achieving Rachel, she is a neurotic mess, with back troubles (she says) and suffering from panic attacks that only her brother can bring her out of. Her wide eyed terror and scream “Is it the terrorists?” will haunt your nightmares.
Cruise can do this kind of role in his sleep by now, immature hot shot, good at his job, but perhaps without the maturity make up to be a father and husband. When their lives are on the line he rises to the occasion and saves them all. The searing panic and terror he feels when he sees his reflection in the mirror, his body and face covered in the dust of the dead, he is truly terrified and shakes it off, trying to free himself of the nightmare he has experienced. For perhaps the first time in his life he truly becomes a father.
Tim Robbins is very good but let’s face it, the moment we see his moon face reflected in the explosions you might as well place a “cuckoo for cocoa puffs” sign above his head. He is clearly a whack job and when Cruise does what he has to do, it is a mercy killing because Robbins behaviour is going to result in them all getting killed.
The film has many great action sequences, and some moments of pure unbridled terror that work a sorcerer’s magic on the audience, but it is that damned last 20 seconds that undoes nearly everything. Robbie is a tough character to like, a smart ass who knows more than everyone, and when he went over that hill, I was O.K with that. By the end I had forgotten all about him, and when he showed up, my heart fell. Spielberg has come so far; I am not sure why he back pedaled into sentiment.
For more than two hours, dark brilliance and pure allegorical terror…and then the kid shows up alive.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.