July 03, 2005

War of the Worlds

Let me say right off the bat that this incarnation of War of the World has one of the most inappropriate and embarrassingly awful endings I've ever seen. Lest you think my problem is with the story itself, think again; the concept is one of the great masterstrokes of science fiction, one whose novelty far exceeds the drawback of the plot holes that result. I loved Signs, I loved the original Wells story. The embarrassment of the ending is unique to this particular telling.
And yet I find myself forced to recommend the film even considering, because everything up to that point represents disaster filmmaking at its finest and most horrifyingly real. I've never seen an alien invasion but if I'd had I'm certain it would almost exactly like this. The tripods are an aesthetic decision, a nod back to the source material. But the view from the ground nails human nature more accurately and more comprehensively than any film I can remember. There is a moment early on where Rachel gives her father parenting advice. It raises the irritating precocious child red flag and is notable for being the only time I doubted the believability of a character's actions in the entire movie.
And thank God, because the film peaks with its human moments. I winced at moments of humanity's worst, like when men murder innocents without hesitation such is their desperation for a leg up in the game of survival. I was inspired by moments of humanity's best, as when the son risks helping a couple people onto a ferry after he has already made it to safety. I've seen masterpieces with one view or the other, but by placing them in sharp relief within the same movie, Spielberg allows the reality to finally cut through the editorializing. The matter-of-fact presentation is the opposite of what we expect from him, and gives the money shots real power. When we see bodies floating down the Hudson, for instance, he allows the image itself to do the talking — its lack of fanfare caught me off-guard and shook me to my core. Likewise, there is a sequence where Rachel sings herself a lullaby while her father does what must be done behind her that is a formalistic masterstroke, presented in the most realistic of ways. I have seen other sequences in other movies that operate off the same principle. None achieves what this does here, surely one of the best of Spielberg's career.
Both War of the Worlds and Mars Attacks! feature tripods firing heat rays that vaporize people. The fact that the former never once reminded me of the latter throughout its entirety speaks to the staggering level of verisimilitude achieved here. They operate as opposite ends of the same spectrum, with the decision to shoot the majority of exteriors on-location grounding the proceedings with an inherent reality that the other apocalypse movies can't even approach.
So it is that an ending which very nearly undoes everything the movie has worked so hard for previously cannot entirely rob this film of its power. Snip off that final scene and move right into the closing narration, and this film would have surpassed Batman Begins as the best film of the year. Even as it stands, there's far too much greatness here to be ignored. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

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