War of the Worlds is the rare action-adventure summer blockbuster in which the human element is at least as important as the special effects. It’s told from ground level, focusing on one dysfunctional family whose struggles to survive are an allegory of modern parenting issues. Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, the world’s prettiest stevedore and absentee father to a rebellious teenage son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning, Hollywood’s go-to precocious 10-year-old). The kids happen to be spending a rare weekend at Ray’s tumbledown New Jersey row house when the Earth is overrun by an alien invasion.
What happens next, and throughout the film, I won’t reveal; suffice it to say that the alien invasion Spielberg has dreamed up is a nightmare of brutality and horror. We watch as neighborhoods and hordes of innocents are decimated, and the way it’s shot — close in, with shaky, handheld cameras — makes you feel every death. The destruction is horribly visceral and disturbing, though it sometimes strains credulity as everyone near Cruise is eliminated while he manages to just escape time and again. It’s an uncharacteristically dark view for Spielberg, after the cuddly aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but it’s the director’s characteristically unflagging humanism that makes it hurt.
The film has deliberate echoes of September 11 — Rachel’s first question upon witnessing the attack is, “Is it the terrorists?” — but it ups the ante, showing us the Eastern Seaboard turned into a horror show of death and devastation. Spielberg works the metaphor further, showing Robbie determined to join the fight against the invaders, to the horror of his father. Cruise is a limited actor who typically coasts on his movie-star charisma rather than giving a performance of any weight or depth, but when the casting is right, he can deliver, as he did as the self-obsessed, self-hating Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia. Here he’s playing another overgrown adolescent, a man who can’t connect with his teenage son but shares his grungy style of dress out of a refusal to accept an adult identity. Spielberg has always been obsessed with absentee or irresponsible fathers, and his direction brings out elements of the perennially youthful Cruise that suit the character. Ray is a man who has never figured out how to live as a grownup, how to put his children’s well-being before his own. It takes the decimation of a large part of the Earth’s population to teach him what parenting is about.
The characterizations are all a bit too out of the box — the angsty, rebellious teen, the child who’s more knowing and mature than her parents, the emotionally underdeveloped father — but the performances make them work. I don’t have high enough praise for Dakota Fanning. Where child actresses of the past were prematurely sexualized — Tatum O’Neal, Brooke Shields, et al. — she’s been intellectualized, turned into a miniature Cate Blanchett. If Hollywood doesn’t screw her up, as it has so many child stars, she’s in line to be the finest actress of her generation. Only 11 years old, she consistently delivers performances of such gravity, intelligence, and true emotion that actors three and four times her age should be envious. And when she crumbles, when the devastation around her chips away at her preternaturally steely resolve, I fall to pieces right along with her. Justin Chatwin, too, is well cast, with facial features and a headstrong bravado that suggest the younger Cruise. His early resentment of his father’s half-hearted efforts at parenting feels earned, and his later heroism and acceptance of his role as part of triangle working for mutual preservation is also believable. The script doesn’t offer sufficient motivation for some of his later actions, but he’s as effective as any young actor could be in the role.
Spielberg’s films have always swung back and forth between the overtly commercial and supposedly laudatory “message” films; here he’s integrated the two more successfully than ever before. Touching on the mob mentality, the futility of war, the blind thirst for revenge, and the ways that catastrophes bring out both the best and worst parts of human nature, he’s able to spin a compelling, harrowing narrative of survival while also commenting on numerous elements of our society. He’s obviously aware that this is a movie taking place in a post-September 11 world, and he doesn’t shy away from addressing the ways in which our society has changed. Always mistrustful of the military and government bureaucracies, he again shows their essential inhumanity, the sickening notion of “acceptable losses,” but he shows too how the ordinary citizen, when swept up in events beyond his control or understanding, becomes little more than an animal.
His direction here is swift and supple, integrating the countless effects shots in a way that never feels as though he’s been overpowered by them. In one truly virtuoso sequence, the camera closes in, pulls back, and whip-pans around a tense conversation in a speeding car without a break. It’s exhilarating to watch a director so capable of making the technology serve his own purposes rather than being subservient to it. And the way he sets up a beautiful scene that is shaken apart by a sudden element of horror, or a horrible scene that becomes shockingly beautiful, is devastating. Spielberg is still Spielberg, and there are some treacly, Capra-esque scenes that come close to derailing the emotional effect, but he’s smart enough to pull back just in time so that it all still works.
Walking out of War of the Worlds, I felt torn apart, hollowed out inside. The sheer horror of the destruction of life and the immeasurable loss of the few wily survivors left me weak in the knees. I had gone in expecting another CGI-overloaded summer extravaganza, but Spielberg blew the top of my head off, delivering a film with a Beckettian sense of futility and hopelessness that still surges with humanity and an almost lyrical sense of visual beauty. In a period of summer blockbusters that stacks Spielberg up against his old frenemy George Lucas, he has again proven himself indubitably superior.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()