6/29/05 Edition

Aisle Seat WAR OF THE WORLDS mania

Andy Reviews Steven Spielberg's Anticipated Sci-Fi Epic
Plus: Pendragon's Direct-To-Video Disaster!

Growing up I must have caught every Golden Age sci-fi flick that ever aired on TV. Whether it was “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” or the original “War of the Worlds,” all a movie needed was Martians and flying saucers and you can be sure that I was there. Even now, I still get excited whenever a genre piece airs on TV or flies into the multiplex -- it’s something that’s always been in my blood and always will be.

The combination of director Steven Spielberg and a modern day version of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” would have sent chills up my spine 20 years ago -- the amount of alien invasion pictures produced since then (“Signs,” “Mars Attacks!,” “Independence Day”) and my mixed reaction to Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”-output admittedly curtailed some of my usual enthusiasm over a project like this.

Nevertheless, the new “War” arrives this week in theaters at a time when the multiplex is suffering one of its worst droughts in nearly 20 years. If there was ever an opportunity for Spielberg to once again ignite his passion for genre films and connect with audiences -- and take all of us back to the kinds of chilling extraterrestrial tales of decades past -- it goes without saying that “War of the Worlds” is it.

Unfortunately, despite all the trappings of a blockbuster, the presence of Tom Cruise (more on that in a minute), and all of Spielberg’s resident artists on-hand to support the director’s vision, this tedious, shockingly uninspired vehicle looks and feels as if it was slapped together in a matter of months. Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” seldom displays the craftsmanship of its filmmaker and ultimately leaves the viewer disheartened that a great opportunity for a genre classic was lost.

It’s not as if the film doesn’t begin well, however. Cruise’s protagonist, Ray Ferrier, is a typical working class New Yorker who wears a Yankees cap and takes his kids (Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin) from his divorced wife (Miranda Otto) for what initially appears to be an ordinary weekend. Josh Friedman and David Koepp’s script quickly establishes the broken, dysfunctional American family in a matter of minutes -- with Chatwin and Cruise bickering to no end -- but it’s thankfully not long before something from the skies descends on New York.

Lightning strikes quickly, and repeatedly. The wind blows towards the mounting storm. Cars lose their power. Watches stop. The power goes out -- and gigantic machines break out of the ground, literally zapping New Yorkers and anyone who comes in their path. It’s a great set-up, but sadly one of the only scenes in “War of the Worlds” that you’ll remember once the credits roll.

From there, Cruise and his kids travel off the highway and towards the Hudson River, in the hopes that they can cross and find Mom in Boston. Along the way they run into a crazed mob, a futile military encounter with the aliens, and a nutcase (played by Tim Robbins) who wants to take back the fight against the extraterrestrials, despite the insanity of doing so. At every turn, though, the creatures in their mammoth machines are there, zapping humans, growing the Red Weed, and harvesting the bodies of their helpless victims for fertilizer.

“War of the Worlds” has several things in its favor: an exciting opening set-piece, a fairly rousing climactic confrontation (even if you don’t realize it’s the climax until the film ends shortly thereafter), and terrific, scene-setting narration by Morgan Freeman that perfectly captures the mood and mystery of Wells’ fantastic tale.

What’s disappointing about the film is -- unfortunately -- everything else. After the picture’s opening the movie grinds to a halt, with endless sequences of Cruise playing the Peter Pan-Dad who has never grown up (how many times have we seen that in a Spielberg film?) and can’t do much else but shout at his kids. The dialogue is so bad that you’ll start noticing the movie’s numerous logistical lapses, like how Cruise is able to maneuver through a highway of stalled cars, or why he doesn’t bother to watch TV when he arrives at his ex-wife’s house, or why a crazed mob waiting to go on a ferry would bother to violently attack an SUV (it might have made more sense if Cruise was driving a boat).

If that wasn’t bad enough, Robbins then appears out of nowhere as a Jedi Knight of the Overweight Republic, in a sequence that ranks with the worst of Spielberg’s career. Robbins mugs endlessly as the neurotic who can’t help himself, while Cruise sings Fanning a lullaby in a moment that could provoke a few unintended chuckles. Even the alien “camera” that shows up is nothing but a recycling of the Pseudopod from “The Abyss,” further compounding an already interminable sequence that only becomes amusing once Robbins is seen digging a tunnel -- at that point I almost expected Morgan Freeman to re-start his narration and ask what Andy Dufresne has been eating for the last 11 years.

Cruise himself seems a strange choice to anchor the film. With his brash and ego-centric persona, he’s never convincing as the father who wants desperately to re-connect with his kids. Granted, the script does the actors no favors, but I couldn’t help but think an actor who’s never had a reputation of being a “movie star” (and specifically an actor known for roles in action films like “Top Gun”) would have better fit the part. (Indeed, some of Cruise’s reaction shots are completely inappropriate given the context of the drama).

Technically “War of the Worlds” has some solid effects but the design of the aliens and the ships themselves aren’t jaw-dropping or particularly memorable. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography captures the claustrophobic nature of some of the film’s trappings all too effectively (you’ll feel like you’ve spent an eternity in Robbins’ basement), but John Williams’ stunningly nondescript score ranks as one of the most thankless and forgettable compositions of his entire career.

Dialed down in the movie to the point where you’ll never realize it’s there unless you specifically try and hear it, Williams’ score incredibly adds so little to the movie that it doesn’t even sound like the work of the composer (though on the same hand, it doesn’t seem as if Spielberg asked Williams’ music to do much of anything except stay out of the way).

By the time you get to the movie’s ending, you can clearly discern the difference between George Pal’s 1953 “War of the Worlds” and Spielberg’s modern version. Pal and director Byron Haskin ended their film with an elegant, almost religious conclusion that viewers have remembered for decades. Spielberg reprises a similar shot of the aliens’ demise, yet throws it away in a hastily-filmed finale shot in an abandoned Connecticut mill (substituting for a Boston suburb). There’s no resonance here, no majesty -- just a quick goodbye and roll to the credits.

That’s the ultimate feeling I was left with in “War of the Worlds.” This project went on the fast track because Cruise and Spielberg wanted to work together again after “Minority Report” and a convenient opening popped up in their respective schedules. They were ready to make the film, even if the script itself possibly wasn’t ready to be made.

As far as the movie works in the context of the genre, it’s moderately entertaining but the mid-section is so bloated that it detracts from the few sequences in the picture that DO work. It’s as if Spielberg wanted to have it both ways here: desiring to show the horror and catastrophe of the invasion, yet still keeping the movie within the “personal” perspective of its protagonist. In the end it accomplishes neither: “Independence Day” did a better job of conveying the scale of an extraterrestrial attack, while “Signs” was far more effective than this film in showing the personal effects that such an apocalyptic occurrence would have on a normal, everyday family.

Given the director and the subject matter, “War of the Worlds” is a colossal disappointment. Where have you gone, Steven Spielberg? (**, 116 mins., PG-13).


Regardless of how you feel about Spielberg’s film, there’s no question that it’s light years beyond the embarrassment of Pendragon Pictures’ WAR OF THE WORLDS (*, 171 mins., PG; Sterling), a three-hour adaptation of the original Wells novel that had developed a fair amount of discussion online over the last few months.

As it turns out, such talk wasn’t worth the time it takes to post a message board rant. This amateurish, low-budget (no-budget?) offering from writer-director-producer Timothy Hines sports some of the most laughable visual effects seen in any film perhaps ever. Computerized ocean-going vessels, paper-looking cut-outs of the London skyline, and of course poky-looking aliens resemble what you’d routinely see in a PC CD-ROM game from, oh, about ten years ago. Perhaps one could sum up the “special” effects as what Ed Wood would have produced had CGI been around back in his day -- they’ll truly leave you speechless for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, the “acting” of Hines’ cast will make you recall the sorts of overbearing, ridiculous performances you’d ordinarily see in the silent movie era, except here the actors also talk. Perhaps they would have been better left mute, since Hines’ hilarious, if well-meaning, script fails to deliver any dialogue that isn’t worth a giggle or two.

Because this “War of the Worlds” is being carried only at Walmart domestically and is completely unavailable in England (apparently Paramount controls the copyright to the material in most international territories), Pendragon’s version has gained something of a “cult” reputation. Obviously this comes from those who haven’t experienced just how laughable it is on every level, because I have a hard time believing the OTHER “War of the Worlds” cash-in (with Jake Busey and C. Thomas Howell) doesn’t resemble a “movie” more than this “home brewed” concoction masquerading as one.

Sterling’s DVD presentation offers 16:9 widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo sound. No extras are included, though amazingly, there are not one but TWO “Making Of” books being sold about its creation! Though I wouldn’t dream of spending another penny on this project (yes, I did shell out my $8.50 for the DVD), I’d love to read just how Pendragon’s truly “amazing” production was realized on film!

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