I went and saw War of the Worlds last night, and though I wasn’t expecting anything more than a big budget summer blockbuster, I was still fairly disappointed. Of course, since it is a Steven Spielberg film, you know it’s going to look great, and it certainly does. The alien invasion is truly awesome, from the menacing way the tripods move to the way the tripods’ victims disappear in a puff of ash when hit with the alien’s weapons. There are plenty of apocalyptic moments, but being a fan of apocalyptic movies in general, I found myself quite underwhelmed after awhile.
But one can only take so much mass destruction before it becomes rather numbing. After awhile, I found myself thinking “Oh look, another countryside being razed by aliens” or “Oh look, another city going up in flames” or “Oh look, yet another hysterical crowd doing the same old stupid things that hysterical crowds do.” Yawn. I even got used to all of the obvious September 11th imagery — survivors covered in the ash of disintegrated people, the walls of photos and letters asking for news on loved ones.
It doesn’t help that there’s not one single sympathetic main character. Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier is a single dad who is such a selfish, arrogant prick that his character arc into someone more sacrificial and heroic never feels as complete as it is depicted to be. His son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), is a sullen jerk. However, he feels more believable than Ray — when the aliens attack, he exhibits some measure of heroism and sacrifice, even if it is ultimately stupid and pointless in the greater scheme of things.
And then there’s Dakota Fanning’s Rachel.
Let me just say that there are few things I hate more in movies than precocious little kids, and Rachel is as precocious as they come. The problem is that they’re always sold as being smarter and more mature than the adults — and it’s obvious that’s the case here — but when things go to hell, they suddenly lose that composure and start screaming their heads off. If they were as intelligent and mature as they’re made out to be, you’d expect them to behave a little better.
Sure, Fanning is quite adept as crying, screaming, covering up her eyes, etc. (though don’t believe, for a second, that she or any of the other main characters, are in any real danger). But just because you can do that doesn’t make for a good, compelling character. After listening to her scream and cry, I’m baffled as to why Ray didn’t just chuck her out the door of their minivan and leave her for the aliens.
Ah yes, the aliens. Another sore point. For starters, if the aliens are really these super-intelligent beings who have mastered interstellar travel and have built these amazing and terrible machines, you’d think they’d also have a basic understanding of microbiology. You’d think they’d have done at least some sort of threat analysis. Even moreso, seeing as how the movie changes the plot of H.G. Wells’ original novel to say that the aliens were already here, having planted their machines beneath our cities millions of years ago. (In Wells’ novel, the aliens travel to Earth from Mars, tripods in tow, and have never been to our planet before.)
Or perhaps, as some critics are suggesting, Spielberg is attempting to draw a parallel between the alien’s poorly planned invasion and our recent military activity over in Iraq.
Don’t these aliens possess even a simple microscope? And how were they to know that us humans wouldn’t discover their gigantic machines lying beneath our biggest cities? How did they know the cities would be there in the first place? It would’ve sucked if they’d buried their machines somewhere in the Sahara or Arctic Circle and then had to travel a couple thousand miles before decimating New York, etc. Didn’t the alien command structure, being so advanced, give these possibilities the slightest thought. If not, it seems like a pretty big risk. (Stephen Greydanus raises some more brilliant observations about these shortcomings in his review.)
And just how in the heck did this movie not get rated “R”? Let’s see. Mass destruction? Check. People getting vaporized right in front of our eyes? Check. Tripods harvesting humans and spraying their blood all over the countryside? Check. Does Speilberg have some sort of secret agreement with the MPAA? Or was it Cruise’s star power? Or perhaps Fanning’s overwhelming cuteness. Or maybe it was because there was nary a boob or butt-cheek to be seen amidst all of the wholesale death and destruction.
And now that I think about it, people getting vaporized, their bodies disappearing into ash which then covers the survivors, isn’t really that gory or disgusting. I mean, we don’t see any guts or anything, do we? And it’s alright if we see aliens spray blood all over the countryside, so long as we don’t actually see them suck the blood out of those poor humans. Well, I guess we can see the needle, but just make sure you hide the body behind a tractor or something so we don’t actually see the blood. Oh wait, I guess we can see it being pumped up a tube and then sprayed out, but don’t show anything else. That would be gross, or something.
I’m not saying all of that to attack War of the Worlds in particular as I feel it was graver problems than these, but rather to point out how idiotic our current movie rating system is. There are these fine lines that movies can’t cross, for fear of making “unsuitable.” But we can sure as heck toe them and balance on them as much as we like, so long as we obey the letter of the law.
Finally, I know I’m not the most knowledgeable when it comes to Spielberg’s movies, but for the life of me, I can’t see how people are calling it one of his best. Is it just because it’s a Spielberg movie, and therefore, people feel compelled to sing its praises? I know that most people associate magic, wonder, and adventure with Spielberg’s movies (probably due more to fond memories of E.T. and the Indiana Jones than anything else). War of the Worlds, however, feels like yet another big budget, special effects-packed movie that seemingly anyone in Hollywood can churn out with the right budget these days. And that, perhaps, is what I like least about it.