War of the Worlds is incredibly frustrating. With a bit of tweaking this could be a goddamn masterpiece next to Spielberg’s other work like Jurassic Park and Raiders. There is incredible craftsmanship dotted through Worlds but it never reaches the classic level it should. And that is infuriating.
War of the Worlds (2005) is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Tom Cruise as everyman Ray, who must protect his estranged kids and get to Boston in the midst of an alien invasion. This film is based on the 1897 novel of the same name by H.G. Wells and it stays relatively close to the source material, including focusing on the perspective of a single character. This isn’t a global story akin to Independence Day or The Day the Earth Stood Still but is very grounded in the views of the civilians affected by this calamity. Spielberg’s focus here means the story feels personal and possibly even scarier due to the limited knowledge the characters (and the audiences) possesses, and so its definitely a refreshing change from other invasion films.
The personal perspective also gives the story a real world parallel through refugees during wartime. There are so many scenes that echo desperate contemporary refugees fleeing persecution that the film has a sombre tone akin to a war drama rather than a sci-fi blockbuster. Explosions and visual effects still abound, but instead of awe, you’re gaping at them in abject horror.
Speaking of which, some of the visuals in this film are absolutely incredible. The craftsmanship in showcasing scenes of desperate people fighting over a working car to people being slaughtered by the hundreds in the background by the Tripods is top-notch (unsurprising thanks to Spielberg). The Tripods themselves are stunning. They’re equally a classic but also innovative design and ooze menace to the point that they are the standout image of a film that is overflowing with striking visuals.
And now to the problems… Firstly, the pacing of the film is off. For the most part it moves along at a steady pace, but there’s a significant slow down around the end of act two that lasts for much longer than it justifiably should. The ending is also a significant let-down. Its the typical Spielberg happy ending, which completely upends the tone of the entire film. Not only does it make little sense, but there’s a huge deus ex machina created to happily resolve all of their problems. I am aware that its faithful to the ending of the book, but when you have to explain it with a voice-over that is completely absent for the vast majority of the film, its not satisfying.
Equally so there are issues with the characters. Cruise does a fine job at appearing like a regular joe thrust into making difficult decisions, but try as he might, there are very few moments when he actually feels like his life is at threat. Its Tom Cruise. Thanks to his huge profile and action kudos, the danger never feels real, which unfortunately undermines the perspective and tone of the film. His kids aren’t particularly great either. While their performances are good, the characters themselves are so grating that instead of gunning for them to survive, you just want them to die so they can shut the hell up and stop being stupid. Considering they’re such a significant crutch of the film, that’s quite a problem.
Returning to my opening sentiment, every flaw in War of the Worlds is a frustration considering how much incredible craftsmanship there is in this film. One minute you’re gawking in horror at the destruction on screen, and the next you’re rolling your eyes at a little girl screaming because she’s not being paid attention. Adjusted, Worlds could be a modern masterpiece. As it stands, its still a good film. But good just isn’t enough.
General Audiences: Recommended
Film Buffs: Recommended