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War of the Worlds

Forget about Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, their newfound relationship, Scientology, couch jumping, and all other aspects of the recent media circus spectacle that has, and will, unfortunately steal away attention to what really counts this week: War of the Worlds is one helluva good film.


That’s right, it’s out there, now let's deal with it. Spielberg has gone above and beyond this time by shedding a good majority of the soft-bellied undertones and pandering aspects that have torpedoed other efforts of his lately. What results is a film far grittier and bleak than nearly any other in his repertoire. That is, save one.

Yes, Schindler’s List still has the edge on Worlds, largely due to its ties to historical hardships. No one in their right mind would argue that. Yet what makes War of the Worlds so intriguing is that the film could very well fall right in line with some of the earlier work put forth by the auteur. For some reason, subtle resemblances to the likes of E.T., Jaws, Poltergeist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind seem to be employed here, and say what you will about each of these films' individuality, all are welcomed.

Spielberg’s molting has unleashed a side of the director so grim and dark in contrast that War of the Worlds almost feels as if it were the product of a younger director altogether. In fact, if it weren’t for the steady stream of typical Spielbergian thematic necessities, one could easily assume that some other helmer were responsible for the finished product. Here, amongst the gloom and doom, we still manage to establish themes of manhood, coming of age, and prerequisite father and son arc.

The film begins at a steady clip, establishing the splintered and troubled Ferrier family as one containing a war of its own on a microcosmic level. Ray (Cruise) seems eager to hold on to his title as father underneath his childish, dock working, and hot-rodding exterior. His children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), epitomize “jaded” in their own ways, and live with their mother, Mary Anne (Miranda Otto) and her new beau Tim (David Alan Basche).

Robbie confines himself to hiding in his headphones and ignores Ray’s attempts at parental exertion while Rachel’s mere actions, albeit unintentional, seem to stab to the core of Ray’s very soul. Otto plays Mary Anne as a mother whose only concern is that of her children’s well being. She storms Ray’s domicile in search of relief in finding adequate resources to provide Robbie and Rachel with food, shelter, and ultimately safety. Unfortunately for her, she finds no solace in the status of Ray’s home.

What Ray does have going for him in the eyes of Mary Anne is his charm. Although Cruise, the actor, is currently learning that his own charm is wearing thin, Ray still manages to bring a smile to Mary Anne’s face to help ease her worry.

Two-thirds of way through this review, and it comes to mind that the subject of aliens, invasion, and the extermination of mankind has failed to even rear its ugly head as of yet. Like the film, these aspects of the story are important here, but they take a backseat to the underpinnings that make this yarn work. When electromagnetic pulses begin showing up in random places around the globe, the phenomenon is greeted with not so much panic, but awe at the wonders of nature.

Could this be fall out from global warming? Bizarre changes in weather patterns? Who knows? Well, actually anyone with ticket in hand knows better, but this approach to the scenario never feels tongue in cheek as we see why these characters approach it in this way. They have no reason to question otherwise.

It doesn’t take long for all of this to get set in motion, and by the time the first tripod begins razing the city streets we are firmly glued to our seats questioning the potential outcome for the Ferriers. Lightning never strikes the same spot twice, but what could possibly be in store for people who witness firsthand as lightning strikes at precisely the same spot twenty-six times in a row?

What ensues is best described as homespun paranoia and anxiety. Spielberg’s rather low key approach to a big budgeted summer blockbuster provides a far more insightful and resonate look at the resulting invasion. There is no roller coaster ride sequence involving an untrained man from a working class background taking the reigns of a stealthy fighter craft and somehow figuring out how to defeat our invaders. In fact, the survival perspective of one family is refreshing as it draws into the foreground far more poignant themes to explore in greater detail. When aliens invade, who will we be truly at war with?

Amidst a summer of weakened box office returns, it seems the film-going public is far more reluctant to shell out for less than worthy films. Truth be told, between this and Batman Begins, the summer is actually shaping up nicely in the content department.

Welcome back, Steven. Welcome back.


Mario Anima

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