War of the Worlds

The tagline for this film was ‘They’re already here’, a reference to the fact that instead of the aliens arriving in their spaceships, they buried them on Earth thousands of years ago. Then they waited until these ships were covered in sewer systems and plumbing and electricity lines and, you know, cities, and then beamed down to break out from underneath all that concrete and London Underground and then attack. Why? I don’t know. I don’t think I’m supposed to.

It’s a minor change from the original story but the effect it has is to make the invading aliens completely stupid. They’ve sent machines to Earth from god knows where, they’ve succeeded in hiding them from us despite our tendency to dig things up — particularly when laying foundations for cities and tube stations and the like — and they’ve even determined that human blood makes an excellent fertisliser for the red weed they bring with them, yet they’re foiled by the same bacterial deus ex machina that foiled the Wells’ Martians. Pfft.

I suppose that the purpose of this was to demonstrate the futility of fighting back — the aliens have been planning the invasions since before we even invented digital watches — but it’s barely mentioned. In fact, the so-called ‘War’ isn’t even touched upon much; most of the film is taken up by Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his Two Insufferable Children trying to escape from the aliens. There’s a couple of scenes featuring the military attempting to fight back, but you’d hardly know there was a war of worlds going on, particularly as the world outside the US is barely mentioned.

It’s a shame, because the alien tripods are seriously impressive from the moment they start clawing their way up out of the earth, shooting anything that moves and trashing buildings. They have a real sense of weight and unstoppable inertia to them. There are finely-played moments of tension such as the moment when Ray, Rachel and twitchy survivalist Ogilvy (an amalgamation of about three characters and played by Tim Robbins) are hiding in a basement while an electronic roving eye tries to find them. The aliens themselves are less impressive than their machines, looking like typical Spielbergian big-eyed creations, albeit ones that have let themselves go a bit, and perhaps hung out with the wrong crowd at school. Imagine E.T.’s older, taller cousin who is a Goth and you wouldn’t be far out.

The war — pretty central to the plot, you would think — is here moved to the background so that Spielberg can focus on what really matters, which is witnessing Ray bonding with his estranged and aforementioned Two Insufferable Children, Rachel and Robbie. Ok, so in this case it all takes place on a backdrop of spooky giant tripods, collapsing buildings and shuffling refugees, but really — it doesn’t have to.

Shut up, shut up. Shut up, just shut up.

Of the Two Insufferable Children, sullen teenager Robbie is the more bearable of the two by virtue of the fact that he leaves halfway through the film and spares us any more of his dead-eyed determination to go and watch the ‘splosions, even if it means running directly into them. I’m guessing that what’s supposed to be happening here is that he’s overwhelmed by the need for revenge, the need to fight back against the enemy, but it doesn’t come out that way; instead we just have a teenager who insists that he ‘needs’ to see the fighting, just like he ‘needs’ to get the latest Green Day album.

Rachel is the younger child, and she’s one of these irritating, supposedly cute 10-year-old girls who are unrealistically precocious and who turn up in Spielberg films to spout lines that would be more appropriate spoken by a 35-year-old divorcee. She also screams a bit, and talks a lot. I mean, really; she just won’t shut up. What’s happening dad? Dad? What’s happening? What’s happening? Dad? DAD!? WHAT’S HAPPENING!? What’s happening? DAD!? All this as the world explodes around them and Ray, covered in desiccated human bits is desperately trying to drive his way to safety. I would have offered her up as a sacrifice very early on, but then I suppose this is why I shouldn’t have children.

Look, kids! A 9/11 reference!

I wasn’t sure at first if there were 9/11 references in this film until they started turning up every five minutes. It’s all laid on a bit thick, right from the very beginning where we discover that — gasp! — the aliens were here among us all along! There’s a plane crashing on suburbia, there’s queues of people trying to give blood but being turned away because the authorities have more than they can handle, there’s walls covered with ‘missing’ photos (which must all have been made and stuck up bloody quickly, given that the invasion only begun about a day previously).

In fairness to Spielberg, it’s all excellently filmed. Scenes where it rains clothing, or when body after body is seen serenely floating down a river, or a shock scene featuring a passing train — they’re all very impressive moments. It’s just unfortunate that he has chosen to focus on the tedious Ferriers, who needed an apocalypse to just get them to hug more.