Stephen Spielberg‘s career seems to have gone in three different directions lately. There are the serious, mature films that began with Schindler’s List and continued with Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and this year’s Munich. On the flipside are the lightweight comedies that always seem to star Tom Hanks, like Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal. Somewhere in the middle are the edgier science-fiction films like A.I., Minority Report and now his take on H. G. Wells‘ The War of the Worlds.
I’m torn whether to describe this as a remake of the 1953 George Pal classic or as simply a new adaptation of H. G. Wells’ original novel. I mean, is Kenneth Branaugh‘s Henry V a remake of the Lawrence Olivier‘s version or a just another take on Shakespeare’s original play? On the one hand, Spielberg’s film is a vastly different interpretation of the story from Pal’s film, but on the other hand, certain scenes are consciously lifted from the earlier film, especially the farmhouse sequence and the final view of the aliens. Add to that a cameo by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and the relationship between the two versions is pretty explicit. However, there is also dialogue lifted directly from the 1938 Orson Welles radio play and you could call setting the film in New Jersey a reference to Welles’ version as well. All told, I prefer to call this a new interpretation that respects and references its predecessors.
Where the 2005 film really diverges is in its choice of main characters. Rather than Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), the hyper-competent scientist from the first, we get Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a poster child for absentee dads. Frankly, if this guy were my father, I’d pray for him to be absent as frequently as possible. A self-centered working-class slob living in New Jersey, he reluctantly takes custody of his two kids, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) while his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) visits her parents in Boston. It’s clear that father and son barely tolerate each other while young Rachel tries to stay serenely above it all. When Robbie takes off in Ray’s prized vintage Mustang, the search for him is interrupted by a bizarre and violent lightning storm which strikes muliple times in the exact same spot and knocks out all electrical devices, including cars. When Robbie returns on foot, Ray makes him stay with his sister while he looks for his car. That leads him to the intersection where all of the lightning bolts struck. Suddenly, the ground cracks under their feet and a huge machine on tripod legs rises and starts zapping people. Before too long, there are several of the giants zapping New Jersey into small pieces.
Ray barely makes it back to his house in time to pile his two kids into the last working vehicle and head for the the mother’s house. When she’s not there, they make for Boston. Ray’s “shut-up-and-do-what-you’re-old” style of taking charage doesn’t go over to well with Robbie, who disappears to follow a group of soldiers heading off to fight against the invaders, quite futilely it turns out. Ray and Rachel take refuge in the farm house of Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), a survivalist with years of supplies in his basement and more than a few bats in his belfy.
Now, if this were the type of film that cynics always accuse Spielberg of making, Dakota Fanning would have taken charge and saved her clueless dad’s bacon. Instead, we see a terrified man shake the rust off his paternal instinct and do everything he can to protect his equally terrified daughter. The most significant improvement over the 1953 version was taking the story away from the generals and the scientists and turning it over to an ordinary man with no means to fight back and only his own wits to help him survive, which makes it more true to the original novel.
I don’t think Tom Cruise gets enough credit for his performance here, due probably to the ridiculous spectacle he made of himself over his relationship with Katie Holmes. Ray Ferrier is a well-rounded role that can’t rely purely on Cruise’s charisma to be successful.
Dakota Fanning gives a patented Dakota Fanning performance, which means she’s scary-good for someone who’s just eleven, for crying out loud. Rachel starts out as her roles usually go, cheerful, sweet and wise beyond her years, but then the film keeps her terrified and shell-shocked for most of the rest of the story. Fanning pulls it off effortlessly and shows great lung power when she has to spend the middle part of the story screaming her head off like a pint-sized Fay Wray.
As observed in my review of the 1953 version, each new interpretation of The War of the Worlds reflects the predominant fears of its time. In the fifties, it was the Cold War, while this version was clearly informed by the events of September 11, 2001. The fact that the alien machines were undergound suggests “sleeper cells.” Covered in ash after the initial attack, Ray looks like pictures of people seen fleeing the collapse of the twin towers. Additionally, people early in the film automatically think “terrorist attack” when things start to blow up. Robbie’s desire to blindly strike back against an enemy he didn’t yet understand was an instinct a lot of us had in the days after 9/11.
In one sense, War of the Worlds is another one of Spielberg’s summer popcorn blockbusters like Jurassic Park, but this movie is really head and shoulders above the 1993 dinosaur flick, with deeper characters, greater relevance to current events and a greater sense of menace from the monsters that threaten our heroes. Like Minority Report, War of the Worlds shows Spielberg taking his commercial work to a whole new level.