Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 22, 2005)
Moviegoers in 2005 could be excused if they felt a feeling of déjà vu. With both a Star Wars flick and a Steven Spielberg movie about aliens coming to Earth, it felt like 1977 all over again.
Few will say that Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds live up to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, both movies are good, and the timing led to a fun sense of nostalgia. At least 2005 beat 2002. That year also had a new Star Wars flick and a Spielberg sci-fi offering, both of which were entertaining but rather erratic.
One could say the same about War and Sith, I suppose, but I think both films suffer from fewer flaws than their 2002 counterparts. In Spielberg’s War, we meet Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a divorced dockworker who doesn’t often see his kids. Teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) don’t maintain a close relationship with their dad, mostly because he’s a selfish dude who doesn’t know much about raising children.
After some awkward moments among the family, different matters take priority when an electrical storm zaps the area. This turns out to be an alien invasion, as the residents realize when an enormous three-legged craft comes out the street and starts to zap everyone it can. From there the movie follows Ray’s attempts to keep himself and his kids alive.
Funny – after 9/11, weren’t we all told that no one would make this kind of movie anymore? War shows many hallmarks of being a product of the post-9/11 world, partially through its occasional allusions to that event. Shots of Ray covered in ashes as well as posters that list missing people overtly recall that event, and other elements hearken back to it as well. Spielberg doesn’t pour on the connections, but he brings enough of them to give the film a dark evocation of that period.
I think 9/11 also impacted War due to its inherent darkness. When I reviewed Minority Report, I mentioned that Spielberg lacked the coldness to make the movie as rough and gritty as it deserved. He leavened the tale with self-conscious comic moments that lessened its impact.
Spielberg doesn’t make the same mistake here. Sure, the occasional funny moment occurs, but the vast majority take place before the attack. In contrast with his usual attitude, here Spielberg seems to revel in the aggressiveness and tension. He doesn’t deflate these segments; instead, he makes them even more intense.
Most filmmakers get softer as they age, but Spielberg appears to be on the opposite path. Over the last few years, he’s made movies that are notably darker than anything he did in his first decade or so. There’s no way the Spielberg of the late Seventies or early Eighties could have made such a dark film.
Of course, you shouldn’t take that as a criticism of those movies, as they remain his best. With the exception of 1979’s 1941, Spielberg was virtually flawless from 1975 to 1982. However, a War made by Spielberg in 1980 would have been lighter than the one he made in 2005, as I don’t think he could have created anything nearly as disturbing.
Remarkably, Spielberg avoids a sense of reassurance for the audience. Usually we get the impression that no matter how bad things get, everything will be fine in the end. That doesn’t occur during War. Instead, the movie just goes from bad to worse, and it’s hard to envision a satisfying resolution.
I don’t think it ruins anything to indicate that War does end on a positive note; heck, it concludes the same way as a book that’s been around for more than 100 years, so the finale is well-known. Actually, the ending comes as a bit of a letdown in the way Spielberg executes it. I won’t go into specifics, but he leaves open some odd plot holes and doesn’t give the flick a tremendously satisfying finish.
Otherwise, Spielberg fires on all cylinders throughout War. Truly, I never thought he could create a movie with quite this much darkness and tension. I admired George Lucas because he didn’t wimp out when it came to the harsher aspects of Sith, and I have to give the same praise to Spielberg. War gets classified as sci-fi action, but in many ways it falls into the horror genre. This is a cold, scary flick.
Some worried that Cruise’s bizarre behavior would harpoon the movie’s prospects. He created such a strange buzz about himself that it might turn off moviegoers. I was a little concerned about this myself, in that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to turn off my thoughts about Annoying Tom Cruise and accept Actor Tom Cruise.
The latter came to the forefront in War via a surprisingly strong performance. I didn’t think Cruise made much sense as the delinquent dad, but he pulls off the role with gusto. He makes Ray’s transition totally believable and even seems convincing as a blue collar Jersey dude. Although Cruise had the potential to harm the movie, he greatly benefits it.
As one who often criticizes computer graphics, I thought I get turned off by the rampant CG of War. That’s not the case. With only minor exceptions, the effects are splendid. They blend very well with the action and give the movie the awe-inspiring grandeur it deserves. For once I was able to forget that I was watching CG and simply invest myself in the story.
Is there anything I didn’t like about War? I suppose there are too many of the usual movie coincidences, and the characters of the kids don’t get explored very well. But that’s about it, as otherwise I think the movie succeeds. Spielberg’s best movie in years, War of the Worlds marks a true return to form for the director. I hope we get more of this sort of exciting “popcorn flick” from him in the future.