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WAR OF THE WORLDS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins
Director: Steven Spielberg
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Dreamworks
Features: See Review
Length: 117 Minutes
Release Date: November 22, 2005

“Is the lightning back?”

“No, this is something else.”

Film **

I’ve never wanted to like a movie more than this, but War of the Worlds is truly something of a disappointment, especially when one considers the talent that was involved. Heck, the last time director Steven Spielberg and superstar Tom Cruise collaborated; the result was one of the best science fiction films of the last twenty years, Minority Report. And although the visuals in this movie are top level, the overall effect can even begin to measure up to many of Spielberg’s past endeavors, most notably Close Encounters.

This is an essentially a contemporary retelling of the classic H.G. Wells novel. What Spielberg has done this time around, as far as I can tell, is make the alien creatures similar to that of his man eating dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. There are countless sequences of humans getting zapped and disintegrated by alien tripods, but no explanation as to why they are invading in the first place. The result is essentially the same film as Independence Day, but with a lesser effect.

Cruise, in a very fine performance, plays Ray Ferrier, a New Jersey dock worker and single father. Ray isn’t the best father in the world, as he is late to meet his ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), who’s dropping their kids off with him for a few days. His daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), gets along with him just fine, while older son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), isn’t the prettiest father/son relationship you’ve ever seen.

As the day gets darker, a strange dark cloud seems to be forming over the city. Lightning starts to strike at the oddest points. Before long, the ground begins to seriously shake, only there’s no earthquake occurring. Ray rushes downtown to see what all the fuss is about, and is shocked at what he sees rise from below the ground.

The rest of the movie basically consists of Ray and his two children searching for safe shelter as alien tripods invade not only America, but the entire world. Ray also has to come to grips with the fact that he hasn’t been the best father, as his relationship with Robbie seems to be on the breaking point. And as for Rachel, she has a hard time trying to stay un-frightened.

I will give the screenwriters, David Koepp and Josh Friedman, credit for applying a little twist on the alien invasion plot. I thought it was neat to see that, this time around, the alien invaders had buried themselves underground and were waiting for the right time to make their strike against humans. I also was taken by a few visual tricks Spielberg delivered, including a nice little suspenseful scene where bright lights flash through a basement where Ray and his kids are hiding out.

Lastly, there was a portion of the movie that I really was blown away by. It involves a character named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), a man who Ray meets up with late in the movie, and who provides shelter to him. This character’s level of paranoia was more than enough to make my skin crawl. Before long, it’s hard to determine which is the greater threat, the predatory aliens or this man’s derangement. It’s a section of the movie that finds an interesting and very dark solution.

I liked a lot of what I saw in War of the Worlds. Again, there were many times when I felt the urge to like a move so much, but certain story points and character flaws kept me far from fully enjoying it. As I mentioned, Cruise is in top form as always, but it’s the children characters that got under my skin. Dakota Fanning, perhaps the best actress ever for her age, irritates with frequent yelling, shrieking and crying. Meanwhile, Robbie is portrayed as a son who’s constantly got something stuck up his you-know-where.

Another weak area of the film is the conclusion. After all that has gone on, it seems the screenwriters came up with the least creative way to resolve the defeat of the aliens. Without explaining what it is, let me just say that hardly ever in a single alien-invasion flick has an ending felt so rushed and tacked-on.

The movie will indeed get Oscar nods for visual effects and sound (it absolutely deserves them), but in retrospect, War of the Worlds simply isn’t a breakthrough for a filmmaker with the name Steven Spielberg. When you compare this film to others on a resume such as Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and especially Minority Report, all that can be said is that the sense of wonder and impact that one normally associates with Spielberg is sorely lacking.

BONUS TRIVIA: Morgan Freeman provides brief narration in the opening and closing of the movie.

Video ****

Dreamworks has delivered one AMAZING looking disc! Leave it to Spielberg and gifted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to boast many incredible visual shots, which do occupy the screen quite frequently. Image quality is consistently clear and crisp. Nighttime shots also deliver a good effect. A hands down superb visual presentation.

Audio ****

All I can say is…WOW! Though I’ve slammed the movie, I do think that on a technical level, this is something of an achievement, and the folks at Dreamworks have mixed in all the proper elements to make a most memorable sound experience. The 5.1 mix in both Dolby and, ESPECIALLY, DTS will blow your minds. When the aliens invade, a loud vibrating sound ignites that will make tremendous use of your speakers, especially your subwoofer. The entire presentation is in as high-quality as you could ever hope for a single movie to be heard in. Dialogue, music, effects, action, etc. all get amazing attention. Truly one of the best sounding discs of the year!

Features **

The only feature included on this single-disc release is a 15 minute featurette entitled, “Designing the Enemy”, which takes a look at how the alien creatures for the movie were conceived and designed.

Summary:

Despite being well-received by most and being one of the year’s biggest hits in theaters, War of the Worlds just didn’t provide the usual sense of awe I get when watching a Steven Spielberg movie. Having said that, I will say that the DVD handling from Dreamworks is a technical accomplishment.

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