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Should I Watch..? 'War of the Worlds' (2005)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online for over fifteen years.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

War Of The Worlds is a sci-fi thriller film released in 2005 and is "freely adapted" from the novel The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film follows the desperate plight of a New Jersey dock worker trying to protect his children during an alien invasion that threatens all human life on Earth. The film stars Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins and Justin Chatwin with Morgan Freeman appearing as the film's narrator. The film is the second big-screen adaptation of Wells' novel following the 1953 version The War Of The Worlds that starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom also made cameos in this version. The film received a generally positive response from critics and went on to earn more than $603 million worldwide as well as three Oscar nominations.

Forgettable

What's it about?

The film opens by explaining that as man populated and developed on Earth, an unknown alien intelligence was watching us from afar and producing plans for an invasion. Unaware of all of this, dockworker Ray Ferrier is looking forward to spending the weekend with his estranged children Robbie and Rachel who spend most of their time with Ray's former wife, Mary Ann. While Mary Ann departs for her parent's home in Boston, Ray struggles to connect with his kids who clearly distrust him and aren't afraid of showing it.

However, their plans are interrupted by an unusual storm that hits New York with lightning repeatedly striking the same places over and over again. Such events cause local power outages and as Ray examines where the lightning struck, he is witness to an enormous tripodal machine that rises up from the ground and immediately begins destroying everything in its path. Desperate to protect his kids, Ray gathers up whatever supplies he has and prepares to flee to Boston with Rachel and Robbie. But what hope is there for them when these machines appear to threaten all life on Earth?

Trailer

Main Cast

ActorRole

Tom Cruise

Ray Ferrier

Dakota Fanning

Rachel Ferrier

Justin Chatwin

Robbie Ferrier

Miranda Otto

Mary Ann Ferrier

Tim Robbins

Harlan Ogilvy

Morgan Freeman

Narrator

Technical Info

*based on the novel 'The War Of The Worlds' by H.G. Wells

DirectorSteven Spielberg

Screenplay

Josh Friedman & David Koepp*

Running Time

116 minutes

Release Date (UK)

1st July, 2005

Rating

12A

Genre

Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller

Academy Award Nominations

Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

Razzie Award Nominations

Worst Actor (Cruise)

Cruise (centre) becomes a regular face in the crowd, stripped of his charisma and reliant on simply scared of the CG. Frankly, it's a bit of a waste.

Cruise (centre) becomes a regular face in the crowd, stripped of his charisma and reliant on simply scared of the CG. Frankly, it's a bit of a waste.

What's to like?

While he's no stranger to directing movies about aliens, Spielberg's dark and atmospheric vision is a different kettle of fish to the likes of ET The Extra Terrestrial. The film itself seems drained of colour for large sections while the suburban streets getting totally wrecked are a stark contrast to the recognisable landmarks normally destroyed on the big screen, making this film feel worryingly relatable. This isn't some vast, epic picture featuring malevolent aliens in the style of Independence Day. This is a much more human drama set against extraordinary events, much like Wells' novel. Obviously, the setting has been updated from Victorian England to contemporary America but like the 1953 film, it mirrors contemporary fears held in society such as terrorism and survival in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

Also updated are the effects, thankfully. The all-important tripod machines have had a much-needed makeover with sleek CG and design replacing the clunky models held up on fishing wire. The film's scenes of devastation are equally on par with other films depicting wanton destruction but one aspect that separates this film from the competition is the brave decision to not necessarily have all the answers. We see the alien's behaviour but we are powerless to suspect their motives beyond our extinction - which is as it should be. I must also praise the film's otherworldly soundtrack by veteran Spielberg collaborator John Williams. It is wonderfully tense and compliments the action perfectly, especially the haunting and powerful wail echoing across the ruins of society as the aliens seemingly enjoy their victory.

Fun Facts

  • Spielberg was running behind in the film's post-production and skipped an appearance alongside Cruise on Oprah Winfrey's chat show - the very show that included Cruise's notorious "sofa-jumping" incident. The aftermath of the show led to Spielberg falling out with Cruise who believed that such antics distracted from the film's release.
  • The plane crash set used an actual decommissioned Boeing 747 jet which was dismantled by the film's crew and had houses built around it. The set still exists and is now part of Universal Studio's backlot tour and was situated not far from the Bates motel as featured in Psycho.
  • The terrorist attacks of 9/11 heavily influenced the film's production including the reaction Ray has finding himself covered in ash as he stumbles home, being based on stories from survivors of the attacks. The film also mostly utilises shots based at eye level instead of using wide, panoramic shots - this was inspired by the mobile phone footage filmed of the attacks on the day as it happened.

What's not to like?

The weakness I always felt in HG Wells' original novel was that things slow down after the initial shock of the opening scenes. Much like how Saving Private Ryan never quite matched the brutality on its opening during the D-Day landings, War Of The Worlds suffers from a dreadful slowdown after the aliens make their appearance, ripping up small-town America beneath their mighty war machines. But after this, the story seems mired in the usual familial drama that Spielberg is so fond of - fathers trying to bond with their children and learning to be a better person, that sorta guff. Not even a wide-eyed and psychotic Tim Robbins can revive the film's pace.

And however pretty the film looks, this lack of narrative cripples the picture. Cruise isn't especially believable as a hard-working American everyman, flashing his million dollar smile and somehow driving a '66 Shelby GT on a dock worker's wage. It merely underscores how fantastic it all is, despite the film's efforts to portray this story as realistically as possible. I just never got on board and as the story rumbled on to its equally improbable climax (not how the aliens are defeated but how the characters' arcs are neatly wrapped up), I found my attention drifting often. I need more than fancy effects in my sci-fi films - for me, the narrative is just as important and my cast need to do more than simply react to whatever is on a green screen behind them. The film works as a spectacle but unlike the novel or Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast, it just doesn't feel believable.

Of course, the tripods have been updated and loom ominously over the action - but audiences have gotten too used to CG illusions to fall for them any more.

Of course, the tripods have been updated and loom ominously over the action - but audiences have gotten too used to CG illusions to fall for them any more.

Should I watch it?

Personally, I found it a hard picture to enjoy. Its gloomy atmosphere and excess of CG can't compensate for the lack of narrative drive underneath the film's visual splendour. While I appreciate Cruise bringing his star power to the picture, I can't help feeling like a less stellar presence would have helped enormously and provide back-up for the hard-working Fanning, constantly screaming and getting herself into needless danger. Beauty is only skin-deep and while War Of The Worlds looks the part, it doesn't quite convince enough to match some of its earlier adaptations.

Great For: undemanding popcorn munchers, big screen showings, anyone unfamiliar with the story

Not So Great For: the easily bored, anyone who doesn't like screaming kids, fans of the book

What else should I watch?

I may have been unfair perhaps to compare this film to the legendary radio broadcast produced by Orson Welles in 1938 that supposedly produced genuine panic among thousands of listeners who were convinced the drama was real. After all, the story had first appeared on the big screen with 1953's The War Of The Worlds where it matched the sci-fi trends of the time seen in classic films like The Beast From 20'000 Fathoms and It Came From Outer Space - both released in the same year, in fact. However, the first film manages to overcome its occasionally suspect effects by updating the story for its Cold War setting and still just about manages to hold its own even today. When we see a genuine big-screen adaptation of Welles' work set in its original Victorian setting remains anyone's guess.

Alien invasions have been happening in cinemas for generations and have become a staple of science fiction. Usually, the end results are not good if films like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or Independence Day is anything to go by. But that's not to say that all invasions lead to apocalyptic war movies - Pixels is an imaginative comedy that sees Adam Sandler lead a rag-tag bunch against an invading alien force apparently modelled on vintage video game characters such as Pac-Man while Coneheads adopts an even more comic premise with egg-shaped aliens attempting to adapt to life on Earth. Sadly, neither of these set the world alight which means that most audiences will expect yet another Transformers movie or rip-off from the Asylum such as Battle Of Los Angeles.

© 2020 Benjamin Cox