If, in some abstract and uncertain way, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds had consisted only of its first two acts, the movies may never have been the same again, for me. I will do my best, but I really have no words for these 80 mimutes (or so) of cinema: they might have shaken the earth and brought down the theater n walls — it seems like a possibility — but I didn’t notice. Spielberg has never been better; he’s an artist (of course), and a genius (as if you didn’t know), but here he evokes a fear that is absolutely primal, taking what is normally the stuff of pulp or nightmare and making it unspeakably real.
Credit must be given to genre genius David Koepp and his co-writer Josh Friedman, whose screenplay provides Spielberg with an environment that is plausible, engaging adn grounded in humanity. There are three protagonists in this update of the H.G. Wells novel, and the way they interact and speak to each other perfectly evokes a) their uncertain relationship (Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier is divorced and his kids, with him for the weekend, dislike him) and b) the way they might react to a catastrophe of inconceivable proporitons. Watch the scene where Ray returns home, covered in dust, and has to drag his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) out of the house; listen to the way his previously rebellious teenage son quietly pleads for information, and the way their interaction is Almost like that of a father and his two kids, but is just subtly off.
Extraterrestrials invade the Earth in a spectacular way here, but the event is pointedly much more disaster than spectacle. If characters stare at the looming tripods in awe, it is never for long, as abject terror and the need to run for their lives inevitably takes over. Nor does Spielberg have much interest in making us ooh and/or aah, and while some of the sights here are appropriately amazing, as a depiction of a full-scale alien invasion is bound to be, he knows how terrifying this is, and shies away from nothing. His camera shows many incredible things, hints at others, swirls around the actors and effects in virtuoso displays of action movie artistry, and we quickly realize that the PG-13 rating is a fairly serious mistake.
Spielberg edits not for convenience, but for force. There is never, never the sense that something was done because of a limitation, budgetary or otherwise. There is never the opportunity to nitpick at a cut or an effect shot. He flawlessly, brilliantly puts together individual shots and entire set pieces of extraordinary complexity, integrates them seamlessly, makes us believe every frame. When the alien tripods unleash their fury, we do not question them, the aliens, or the people running away. They are there, sure as we’re here, and Tom Cruise is right there with them.
Ultimately, though, War of the Worlds is profoundly frightening not because Spielberg has made an apt horror movie, or because of the way he assaults our senses. It’s that he has taken the fantastic and wholly conceptual — aliens invade — and made it about as real as it is possible for a movie to get. The result is that we watch it not as science-fiction but as a horrifying hypothetical; we are not seeing some vague, distant movie universe violated and pulverized, but our own world, here, now. And when the shit hits the fan early on, we are not observers but compatriots, as astonished and scared as the people on the screen.
The three leads are pivotal elements of this connection. Though Tom Cruise represents the center of the film, it is the kids who make the greatest impact. It falls to Dakota Fanning to provide the most primitive emotional base — sheer terror, bewilderment and despair, all the way through — and lest you think otherwise, that’s no easy task, though one to which she proves equal. Justin Chatwin is convincing as his character goes from the expected confusion to anger to a fierce and surprising determination. And Cruise — well — Tom Cruise keeps up.
I cryptically asserted that War of the Worlds would have been incredible had it consisted only of its first two acts. This is because the third, inexplicably and somewhat disappointingly, narrows its focus, dumping one character and stranding us in a basement with the rest of them. By that point it had taken us to the edge, but it seems to me that it didn’t have the nerve to jump. The resolution, I am sad to report, does not quite ring true, as modifications to the story lessen the impact of Welles’ original ending, and there is one particular reappearance that is like a slap in the face.
A flaw of this kind would probably deal significant damage to most other films, but here it barely makes a dent. Spielberg is, quite simply, the greatest technical filmmaker of all time (of all time), and in terms of pure visceral impact, War of the Worlds is one of his greatest accomplishments. People will nit-pick at the plot and the script, find flaws in the storytelling, get irritated at the ending, but there is no way to look at what Spielberg has put together in the first two-thirds of this film and not be humbled and amazed.