There is a lengthy scene half way through Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) where the character Ray Ferrier (a perfectly serviceable Tom Cruise) is holed up in a farmhouse basement with his daughter (the precocious Dakota Fanning) and the owner of the property, Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), a manic, shotgun-toting survivalist. One of the marauding alien tripods, standing astride the house, sends a long, serpentine probe into the basement to assess the situation and seek out any remaining humans. What’s interesting about this moment is that although it does occur in Wells’ original book of 1898, it now more pointedly recalls the very similar ‘psuedopod scene’ that FX guru Dennis Muren spearheaded in James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989). Here, as in The Abyss, Muren animates wonderfully the tendril as it winds its way round corners and under ledges, searching for signs of life. In a film that uses its CGI like unobtrusive combat footage, this is WOTW’s most obvious special effect; but more than that it’s also a wonderfully self-referential moment from Muren, the man who has in many respects lead the digitised revolution in cinema.
WOTW is very much a work that cashes in on the rampant allegory of 9/11 and the near institutionalised level of fear that now seems to exist in Western society. Yet unlike Batman Begins, the year’s other big summer release that takes fear as its central conceit, WOTW makes no attempt to hide its pretensions behind a veil of comic book action and superheroes. The film’s referencing of terrorist attack imagery has been well-documented and is there for all to see; from the dust-covered survivors to clothing and personal effects raining down from the heavens, Spielberg has pushed terrorism to the very front of his agenda (his next project is about the terrorist massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972) and made Wells’ novel relevant again because of real world events.
That said WOTW is as far removed from brazen, Independence Day-style grandiosity as one could reasonably hope for from a summer event movie. Indeed it is its very conservative use of spectacle and special effects that validates the film and maintains its thrilling appeal. When it does begin to falter it’s not at the hands of Spielberg, who’s made some brave choices here, but the film’s writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp. The narrative never recovers from their segway into the farmhouse basement – its referencing of the Abyss notwithstanding, this scene plays on far too long and introduces us to Ogilvy, an original character from Wells’ book who here is simply not believable – while the coda (though again lifted from the book) leaves you feeling snubbed.
Compensation is provided however by Spielberg’s masterful sense of atmosphere and the intriguing POV he adopts. Shot from the perspective of Ray Ferrier and his two kids, the film withholds any information not directly related to their experience. By and large this approach works (although Spielberg does disrupt it with the odd flashy shot – namely the camera that circles Ray’s minivan for a minute and a half as he flees his home town) and is most effective when it plays on our desire to see death and destruction. A plane crashes into the ground outside Ray’s ex-wife’s home but all we are allowed is the noise of it occurring; a massive battle between the aliens and humans is being fought over the crest of a hill but all we see is the fantastic light of fire in the sky – this is very much Spielberg’s private war.
It seems odd that War of the Worlds, an unremittingly bleak and desolate work, should be one of the key films to pull Hollywood out of its six-month financial slump. Whatever the audience’s reasons are, this remains a film with much to admire. Spielberg is to be commended for his brave attempt at reformatting, at least parts of, an age-old genre template, whilst the effects work is arguably ILM’s best in years; the alien tripods are a masterclass in design and animation and are consistently terrifying because we’re denied a look inside them.