War of the Worlds (3 stars out of 5)

What if they gave a war and forgot to film enough exciting or entertaining scenes? Unfortunately, Steven Spielberg’s latest war epic answers that question.

So at least now we know why Tom Cruise was jumping all over Oprah’s sofa.

And sweeping Katie Holmes off her feet.

And arguing with Matt Lauer about Scientology.

Literary Irony

Scientology was founded by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, whose imagination when it came to aliens was clearly as vivid as Wells’. That Cruise has been inadvertently undermining a work of Wells by promoting a work of Hubbard’s may be a milestone in literary irony.
Tom’s mission: imprudent

Anything to avoid talking about being Steven Spielberg’s least special effect in L. Ron Hubbard’s War of the Worlds.

Oops. Sorry, Mr. Wells.

A spectacular and perfectly faithful version of the H.G. Wells novel, and especially the 1953 film of that novel, War of the Worlds is Independence Day without the laughs, Signs without the scares or spiritual gravitas, Jurassic Park without Jeff Goldblum.

It’s a grim, heavy and ponderous thing, a wonder to look at for stretches that add up to about 45 minutes, and annoying for another 70 minutes.

The world ends, or starts to, at about 20 minutes into WOTW. We’ve met Ray, a crabby divorce’ who drives Steve McQueen’s old Mustang and is the greatest longshoreman in Bayonne, N.J. He doesn’t have custody of his sullen teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) or 10-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning).

But he has them for the weekend. Mirando Otto plays the pregnant ex with a testy intolerance for Ray’s slacker ways. But wouldn’t you know it? It’s his one weekend with them, and the End is Nigh.

The skies boil over the bridge that straddles Ray’s house.

“Hey Rachel, wanna see something cool?”

Ray trips down his block in amazement, accosted by all the hip urban kids who just think he’s the most.

Then the lightning strikes, the power goes out, and everything — from watches and cars to planes and helicopters (but strangely, not camcorders) — shuts down.

“Daddy, is it the terrorists?”

Then, the ground opens up. Say hello to my little tripod.

We don’t know where they come from, when they got here or what they want. That is as it should be. Wells’ 1898 novel was the first of a classic sci-fi invasion genre: They came. They conquered. They caught colds.

That conquering bit is what works best. Baroque killing towers march with one goal — To Serve Man. Cruise spends most of the movie in understandable blank-faced terror. At least Dakota Fanning knows to scream as bodies explode into clouds of floating dry cleaning, buildings are crushed, and the apocalypse is now. Robbie wants to fight back. Ray just wants a little less visitation.

Everybody’s cut off from everybody else, save for a cynical CBS News crew. Rumors fly. Refugees fill the backroads.

The movie is a family-in-crisis drama, with all the blandly predictable stuff about a dad who hasn’t been responsible, a son in revolt and a daughter in counseling. That sets the stage for a depressingly passive viewing experience. The best-laid plans of military men are coming to naught. All Ray can do is flee, keep everybody together and hope that Celine Dion isn’t singing when they take that Hudson River ferry.

David Koepp, who wrote the power-failure thriller The Trigger Effect, polished Josh Friedman’s script, and his touch is seen in the predictable moments where man turns against man. The effects speak for themselves, and they pretty much have to. The dialogue and too many “human” scenes ring hollow. A drawn-out sequence with a nascent survivalist (Tim Robbins) always has worked in this tale. Here, it slows down the show and simply duplicates shots from the 1953 film that starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, who have cameos in this WOTW.

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Orlando Sentinel
June 29, 2005
Roger Moore, Sentinel Movie Critic

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday July 1, 2005.
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