a critiQal film review War of the Worlds (2005)

Plot: When his ex-wife (Otto) drops off the kids for the weekend, Ray (Cruise) doesn't expect it to be any more difficult than usual. When Ray goes to investigate an unusual lightning strike, he discovers an enormous three-legged robot rising out of the ground - and destroying everyone it sees. With the robots attacking every corner of the globe, where will he be able to go to keep his children safe?

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  • ...Spielberg and Cruise help make this movie out of this world.

If you’ve seen a preview for Steven Spielberg’s latest film, War of the Worlds, you know how amazing it looks. Add in Tom Cruise, and you know this duo is going to impress – remember their other pairing, Minority Report (2002)? As good as that was, this one looks even better. It’s blown up on an even bigger scale, and has the classic H.G. Wells novel to provide the great storyline.

After seeing the preview, I knew I’d have to see this on the big screen. You know how it is. Some movies need to be experienced on the big screen – Jurassic Park (1993), Twister (1996), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – those types of films. Seeing them for the first time at home, even on DVD, doesn’t really give the same effect that seeing those big-time effects on the big screen does. War of the Worlds seems to be one of those films.

But, would this second Cruise/Spielberg pairing be even better than Minority Report (2002), or should they have gone their separate ways after their first film?

Tom Cruise always brings a great realism to any character he plays, a tool desperately needed in a movie about an alien attack like War of the Worlds. That sense of realism helps the viewer suspend their disbelief in the plausibility of the film, and trust in Tom to see them through.

His character does seem a bit forced in the beginning of War of the Worlds when he’s pretty indifferent to his kids. We’ve already seen that he’s not so good at playing a bad guy (the damaged Collateral (2004)), so this foray into indifference doesn’t really work for him.

But, when the going gets tough, he steps up into the role of good guy quite easily (at this point, it must be like slipping on a second skin for Tom), and the viewer can really relate to his character. Sure, he has an occasional dark point (what hero doesn’t?) but his main goal is his shining light: get his kids through this ordeal safely. The viewer will easily identify with that goal, and lend their emotions easily to his plight.

Dakota Fanning has gotten a lot of hype lately. At first, it seemed she was just the latest of the hot child stars to step into the limelight, and most likely would fade quickly (how many people know what Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense (1999) is up to now?), and the limelight would single out another child star. War of the Worlds will keep Dakota in the spotlight, since it doesn’t really tax Dakota that much in the acting department: she spends most of the film reacting rather than acting.

Tim Robbins does a decent job in War of the Worlds, although the slightly odd character he plays is starting to get a little old. He was brilliant back in The Player (1992), but since then has degenerated into more of a bit player, rather than lead in films – even films that give him more than the 15 minutes or so that War of the Worlds gives him.

Justin Chatwin also does a decent job in parts of War of the Worlds. In other parts, however, he gets on the viewer’s nerves more than Dakota’s incessant screaming. Those scenes, however, may be a message from Spielberg about the supposedly incessant need for violence among today’s teens.

War of the Worlds does a great job trying to showcase a worldwide catastrophe through the eyes of one single family. By showing viewers what’s happening to this tiny segment of the population, it gets the viewer deeply involved, while at the same time making the viewer believe that this is occurring in vast numbers all across the globe. That way, the filmmakers only need to show a couple of robots attacking, and the viewer just assumes the same is happening in huge numbers everywhere. It’s a great way to showcase a worldwide event because it personalizes the worldwide catastrophe for the viewer, giving the viewer a connection that wouldn’t have been there if the film tried to showcase the entire attack.

The effects in War of the Worlds are simply out-of-this-world. While the machines themselves seem to be refurbished refugees from a 50’s sci-fi flick, the things they do are horrifyingly realistic. Whether it’s zapping someone with a ray or snatching someone with a long tentacle, each detail is brought to life in amazing clarity. While some movies tend to showcase all of their biggest effects in the trailer, this film has so many spectacular effects, there are plenty to go around even after the trailer is done. The realistic effects, thankfully, never give the viewer pause, and fit seamlessly into the real actors around them.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve already seen this movie, only then it was called Independence Day (1996)“. If that’s why you haven’t gone yet, dismiss that thought from your head – there aren’t any Will Smith wisecracks during this one, since it’s all bleak and despair for the most part, a truer testament of how people would react in time of crisis (and a grimmer portrayal of humanity as a whole, showcased dramatically in the sequence involving the fight for the car).

By the way, I was right – War of the Worlds has to be seen on the big screen. The huge amount of spectacular effects will lose some of their grandeur on DVD, so you shouldn’t wait to check out this summer blockbuster of a film. Cruise and the gang pull you in, and the fast-paced in-your-face action keeps you on your toes until the very end (where things wrap up just a little too easily).

At one point early in the film, Robbie says to Ray (after Ray has described the robot he witnessed incinerating his town): “What do you mean, that thing isn’t from here? Where’s it from then, Europe?” No, not quite – in War of the Worlds, Spielberg and Cruise will make you believe it’s truly out of this world.

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