Looking Back At WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)

Tony’s heading to Boston.
It is more or less inevitable that the world will continue to create updated versions of HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds, the further it gets from the original publication of the novel. The War Of The Worlds, like Cinderella, or King Lear, or A Christmas Carol, is a story that easily lends itself to re-interpretation in different ages.

It’s interesting that the two most well-known Hollywood renderings of the story, in 1953 and in 2005, have essentially flipped the underlying point of the story on its head. Where Wells was aiming to make the British Empire and those who supported it feel some empathy with conquered lands and people, using the Martians as imperialists from outer space and giving humans in power a taste of the medicine they were happy to dish out, both Hollywood versions have jealously guarded humanity’s – and particularly, America’s - status as the victims of attack, and used the aliens as forces of “the other” that have come to take or destroy the good things America has built and worked for.

If you watch the 2005 version of War Of The Worlds in isolation, what you get is fairly cogently a response to the likes of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks. The alien tripods were sent here at some uncertain point in the past, and their pilots are transported in under the cover of lightning, to cause immediate devastation when they rise from under the streets and oceans, highlighting the idea that the threat has been ‘sleeping’ right beneath the feet – and the noses – of Americans everywhere. While that notion of the sleeping, incubating threat gives us a whole different take on the Eve of the War and Horsell Common in this movie, its symbolism feels a little too on the nose, a little too much like directorial catharsis, rather than necessarily storytelling excellence.

If you watch it as a partner movie to the Barre Lyndon/George Pal 1953 movie though, it makes more sense.

In the 1953 version, Dr Robert Forrester, a scientist and an important player in the fight against the Martian invasion, embarks on a two-threaded quest – to find a way to defeat the invaders, and to find a woman in whom he’s intensely interested, Sylvia Van Buren.

In the 2005 version, directed by Steven Spielberg – no slouch when it comes to an engaging alien movie or a vast, destructive, CGI epic, there’s a double dedication at work, a determination to pay tribute both to Wells’ original, and to the 1953 version of the movie.
Like Wells, Spielberg makes his protagonist someone entirely unimportant to the war effort (Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise), but like Pal, he gives him a quest in his movie, so that Ferrier can experience some of the worst elements of the war. Where Forrester hunts for a woman he may just possibly love, the post-9/11 version of War of the Worlds has Ferrier journey across the country, while keeping his children alive.

Where in Wells’ novel, the thread of the central character’s motivation is hopeless survival and growing empathy for those who struggle beneath the dignified surface of imperial life, Pal’s 1953 version suggests the notion of God and Christianity as the ultimate hope in times of trouble. In 2005, after one of the most devastating terrorist attacks ever to rock mainland America, the keynote of Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds is simpler – it is family. The pure dedication to keeping your family alive and together, even if, as is very definitely the case here, that family is fractured and fractious and feels all but broken. When the ‘aliens’ (or the terrorists) attack, the thing that matters immediately and most in the 21st century is holding tight to your own.

Tom Cruise takes the lead role of Ray Ferrier, and more than in most of his movies, he sinks the boyish twinkle in his eye down into his depths, to give us a character who’s already hurting at a divorce from his wife Mary Anne (Miranda Otto), her subsequent moving on and new pregnancy, and the fact that she has custody of his two children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning). There’s very little room or air in this movie for trademark Cruise lightness or undercutting, and to give the actor his due, he seems to understand that instinctively.
Once the new, upside-down version of the rise of the Martians on Horsell Common is enacted, though, there’s little about the 2005 War Of The Worlds that feels especially inspired or unique. The new Martian fighting machines have something of the Star Wars walker about them, but are significantly closer to the designs on Wells’ page than, say, the sleek 1953 version. Weirdly enough then, they don’t hold the eye anything like as impressively as their counterparts from half a century earlier.

Their rampage across the world, their feeding on human blood, and their subsequent defeat by the bacteria of the Earth is all here. The heat ray is probably the most authentic representation of Wells’ intent, too – an almost silent, thrumming death that leaps after you and turns you to fire and ash. All of this makes for a decent War Of The Worlds, if never, oddly, an especially exciting one.

The early scenes where, having run blindly, wildly home from the first American fighting machine, Ray Ferrier has to shake and wash the dust that is dead people out of his hair and skin absolutely gives a shudder of remembrance to the dead and the survivors of 9/11, but somehow, combining that with fairly standard scenes of Tom Cruise running away from devastation that always threatens to catch his heels but never quite manages it feels like it demotes War Of The Worlds to an equal footing with ANY early 21st century blockbuster escape movie, which on reflection feels disappointing.
There’s a lot of Wells in this movie, to be sure – there’s a dramatic scene with people trying to escape the fighting machines over water, which while it isn’t exactly the SS Thunder Child scene, does have a similar energy of desperation and hope. There are sequences with Ray and Rachel trapped under rubble, though not with a deranged curate, but with Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), transmuted here from an optimistic astronomer to a deranged former ambulance driver. The oft-repeated scene where a snake-like Martian camera investigates a house with our heroes in is here, extended more than usual, and given what feels like a coating of homage to the 1953 movie (especially when the Martians themselves emerge and prowl the house – here they look distinctly weak and non-threatening, more a nod to 1953 than to Wells’ Martians, who were ‘larger than a bear.’) And there are scenes set in the Martians’ blood-food nets, which most versions skirt over.

Importantly though in the post-9/11 shock, there’s nothing of the usual optimism of a delegation sent to communicate with the Martians before the killing starts, and (in a return to Wells’ secularism), a church is pulled apart and shattered within the initial rise of the Martians. There’s no “In God we trust” about this version of the story – in the 21st century, we trust to family, and we trust to running away, and that is all.

So you can definitely make the case that there’s a good deal of synthesis in the 2005 War Of The Worlds, bringing a high degree of faith to Wells’ original, and ALSO a high degree of faith to the science-fiction phenomenon that was the 1953 version of the movie, and blending the two in a new way.

For all that, it exists very much in the post-9/11 mindset of hurting, and uses the external threat of the aliens to weld the Ferrier family closer together than it seems they’ve ever been.

Cruise has great scenes with both a young Dakota Fanning (acting most other performers right off the screen), and Justin Chatwin as Ferrier’s resentful son, Robbie.

There’s validity in the main message of this version of War Of The Worlds – when the world’s against you, hold to your family against all odds – and there’s also a degree of post-textual coolness from having Spielberg direct a movie with some un-cute aliens, and not have a protagonist want to go off with them and leave his family, but quite the opposite, to keep his family safe from them.

But still, the breath of life in this movie feels like the exhausted breath of an uncertain America, feeling victimized and not taking Wells’ central message to imperial powers to mend their ways at all to heart.

There’s not a huge amount of empathy for others coming through the necessity of a “run away from something deadly” formula in the movie, either – one highlight of that emotion is in the scene with the boat escape, but it’s used to prove how extraordinary a young man Robbie is, rather than how ordinary such compassion should be in human beings. And, as in 1953, there’s no sense coming through that American (or broadly national governmental) activities are mirrored in the merciless conquest by the Martians.
The result is a move in which there’s lots of good work, but also a movie that seems to come from a place of shock and pain and clenching, of having been punched in the face and set behind the camera. As such, even with the likes of Morgan Freeman giving the narrator’s lines his all at the top and tail of the movie, and even with the cutest cameos at the end (Ferrier’s former in-laws are played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson – Dr Forrester and Miss Van Buren from the 1953 version), the 2005 version of War Of The Worlds feels oddly insular and small in its scope and storytelling.

Ultimately, the 2005 version of War Of The Worlds is not a bad movie. It’s just that, while combining a lot of Wells and a lot of Pal, it ultimately feels like a lot of hard work for slightly less reward than you expect.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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