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The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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A ‘War’ within film between serious and silly

The new blockbuster “War of the Worlds,” a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, suffers from the fatal disease “trying to have it both ways” itis.

It wants to be the mindless summer popcorn disaster flick that doesn’t want us to ask vital questions such as: 1. Why aliens want to destroy Earth 2. How a family can walk from New York to Boston in one day while avoiding said aliens 3. How a person’s camcorder can work when every piece of electronic equipment in the city of New York has been made inoperable.

However, it also wants to emphasize the disaster in “disaster flick” by being relentlessly dark and depressing while simultaneously showing the audience horrific imagery of death and destruction–even playing off of the constant fear of terrorism and September 11th.

To be sure, “Worlds” does succeed some of the time, but on the whole it is too uneven, not helped by a lackluster script with only the most superficial of character developments. The film has tense, visceral action from beginning to end. When the aliens attack they attack swiftly and the destruction left in their wake is certainly a sight to behold.

The plot is paper thin, but employs Spielberg’s usual staples as Tom Cruise plays New York dock worker Ray Ferrier who doesn’t have the time or desire to be deeply entrenched in the lives of his children who are visiting for the weekend while his ex-wife and new man go away to Boston for the weekend.

Before long there is an odd lightning storm which kills all electrical equipment and strikes the same spot over and over again. Soon gargantuan alien machines come out of the ground and destroy everything in their wake.

The aliens operate skyscraper sized “tripods” which are faithful in spirit to the 1898 H.G. Wells novel by which this film is based without looking too campy. The aliens shoot death rays that incinerate people into a puff of smoke, leaving only their clothes behind.

The movie works best when it is showcasing the depths that humanity has sunk to when it is being eradicated. The movie certainly isn’t the hopeful and uplifting vision seen in Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the kind of awe inspiring spectacle of “Jurassic Park.” “War of the Worlds” gets down in the mud and stays there. Tim Robbins has a small but memorable role as Ogilvy, a man that was surely at one time decent but since the aliens invaded his mind is only half there and all he can focus on is being part of the resistance.

Spielberg, a longtime friend of “Back to the Future” and “Cast Away” director Robert Zemekis, uses some of Zemekis’ patented technical wizardry to ratchet up the tension and create shots of horrific beauty.

When Ray (Tom Cruise) escapes the destruction in the only working car in New York with children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) in tow there is sustained shot of them driving down the highway while passing the hundreds of cars and people littering the road while the camera circles the car and weaves around the traffic.

In a frighteningly somber scene Ray emerges from the safety of a basement to find the house torn in half and as the camera slowly pushes back we see the remains of what was a horrible plane crash.

There is also a nice scene involving a serpentine tentacled camera that searches for those hiding out in a basement. Spielberg creates the maximum amount of tension as the tentacle weaves around and the human characters narrowly avoid detection.

While the movie has its share of problems it certainly should be commended for at least trying to present the serious consequences of an impossibly ridiculous plot like an alien invasion. “Worlds” is definitely not “Independence Day” with a bunch of broad stereotypes running around and all conveniently being essential to the survival of humanity.

“Worlds” wisely plays down exactly how important the main characters are in this battle for survival. It focuses solely on the Ferrier clan and doesn’t provide any answers other than those loose bits they manage to get along the way. The action always seems to be going away from the screen as the characters spend more time escaping danger than confronting it.

And in a nod to the original film humans are not exactly that successful in repelling the invasion, including an abrupt ending that will anger much of the general audience but please those familiar with the book or the original film.

While many are up in arms over Spielberg’s acknowledgement of the age of terrorism and, as they say, “exploiting 9/11,” I applaud his effort to confront the serious issues that the movies actions would bring about. However, they can’t strike an appropriate balance to deliver something that is both smart and exciting to watch. A big letdown from the same team that created the truly excellent “Minority Report” just three years ago.

The film is like a good meal. It looks good, for the most part it tastes good, doesn’t leave a bad feeling in your stomach but by the next day you’ve forgotten about it and it winds up just being a bunch of empty calories.

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