Thursday, July 07, 2005

War of the Worlds
The overlong review - part 1

Yeah, fine, it's a "high octane" and relatively satisfying action film that I'd recommend (although yes, the end is a cop-out, and yes, it goes a good way to ruining the aftertaste of the whole film.) Now that's out of the way . . .


Spielberg has always given us the aliens we've asked for. In the early 80s, ET reached out that sticklike finger to the tiny blonde girl, and we were all collectively smitten. (Phone home! buy M&Ms! etc.) But today, the aliens he's giving us are very different creatures. These are aliens with weapons of mass destruction. Aliens that kill indiscriminately, bringing down buildings (and a church) into rubble. We see their unexpected strike begin in the middle of busy city streets, surrounded by ordinary American suburbs. In a later scene, a dazed Ray wanders through the scattered debris of a downed aeroplane. Later still, we see crowds of people on the move, dusty and weary, past walls of leaflets covered in the photographs of loved ones: "Have you seen this person?"

Sure, this is a pre-existing story that has been adapted from a story decades old, with its particular story elements (fear from above, death, more death, tripods!) that any film of War of the Worlds would have to include. But the alien fear in this film has been deliberately coded by imagery reminscent of 9/11 footage.

If you like the movie: Spielberg is legitimately tapping into themes / fears which are highly relevant for today.
If you don't like the movie: I guess this answers the question "who was going to be the first filmmaker to cash in on 9/11 paranoia for cheap thrills in an action film", but goddamnit, my money was on Willis or Schwarzenegger.


So is this film (arguably) just a problematic "aliens are bad" film (where "aliens" means "everyone who disagrees with current American foreign policy")? Well . . . no. Even the harshest critics would have to concede that there's more than this going on.

At the points of the film when death is pretty fucking nigh (ie: every scene expect maybe the first ten and last three minutes), the question isn't how the aliens treat the humans. No narrrative arc as such there - they kill everything that moves, every time they have a chance. But what is interesting is how the humans treat each other.

Consider these scenes: right at the beginning of the film, Ray invites a friend of his into the car, all "get in or you'll die". (The dude does not take Ray's advice, and is promptly exploded into his component parts.) This general motif of saving /abandoning is repeated throughout the film. There's the journalist at the downed plane, who chats briefly to Ray then slams the car door in his face, no discussion. There's the mob that attacks the car, finally turning on each other. There's the mad rush for the ferry - with many left behind even though there's room. The focus on the guys who rush forward to help the hangers-on get over the rail after the boat pulls out. (Unfortunately, the aliens have seen James Cameron's Titanic and rope in a handy underwater space ship to play the iceberg). The couple who try and save Ray's daughter.

The film is a mad panic from start to finish, which would excuse a lot of otherwise callous behaviour in the populace. But the film takes note of each and every instance of where we help (and where we trample down). It was during one of these scenes that I started seeing this film not as a re-arguing of ET or Close Encounters, but in the context of Schindler's List. Sure, the Nazis / invading aliens are bad - no question - but that doesn't mean we can't strive for something better, despite the shitty cards we're being dealt. Thinking selflessly in this kind of adversity isn't perhaps as much of an imperative as it might otherwise be, but the film notes each occasion as a sign of character or a point of honour, no matter how futile.

People v People

But when you walk out of the cinema thinking about the film from a distance - what are the scenes you remember? These litttle scenes where people helped each other out? Or that scene in the cellar?

It's totally the cellar, isn't it? I mean, what the hell is going on there?

A lot of film reviews have dismissed this scene as "farcical", "badly acted", "a parody of itself", "oddball". Whilst one or more of these may well be true, I think this scene is key, because it boils down all of human behaviour to the ugly side of our instinct to survive. If Ray is prepared to do anything to save his daughter, by most narratives that would make him a hero. In the majority of scenes in this film, he does come across as driven to save his children whatever the cost (although - more on this goal later). But the deliberateness of this murder. The fade-out of the music to silence. The time for reflection. This is no "heat of the moment" decision to slam a car door, or drive past another survivor. The film wants us to think about whether, even if this is understandable, this is right.

[and - I'm probably really stretching now - but on one reading of the film, the conflict in the cellar between Cruise and Robbins is a microcosm of the larger conflict of survival between humans and aliens. Cruise has come into Robbins' house. Two men occupying the same space - and one makes a rational decision that the other must be exterminated. I'm sure that's in part what the aliens might have thought when they thought they needed "breathing space" . . .]

. . . stay tuned for more - but meanwhile, what did you think of the film?

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