George Herbert Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898. It was about impregnable machines from space razing London. Britons were worried about Germany’s growing military power. The book sold by the millions.
40 Years later, Orson Wells adapted it for radio as a Halloween prank. The Great Depression was just ending, and World War II was coming. Part of the show sounded just like real people dying on the air. Over a million people thought the broadcast was real, and panicked. Police seized all the scripts.
Guess who owns the only extant original copy? Stephen Spielberg. When he decided to film a remake for 2005, his first obstacle was that there’s no need for one. So he uses a handful of symbols from 9/11 to stir our anxieties – ash, panic, a falling jumbo jet. The contemporary graft doesn’t "take" on the old fashioned story. But I guess if one thing could put terrorism into perspective, it’s aliens destroying the world.
Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a selfish New Jersey crane operator. His kids, a teenager named Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and a little girl, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), are staying with him for the weekend. He sort of wants to be a dad sometimes, but the kids are having none of it. He’s soon going to have to figure it out all at once.
There is a storm; wind blows the wrong direction. Everything electrical dies – cell phones, watches, cars. Ray walks to where lightning struck 26 times. It has left a mysterious crater. A giant machine on three legs rises from the hole and aims heat rays at people, turning them into puffs of ash. The street buckles, a church splits in two, and a lot of it looks real.
Ray commandeers a working car and drives the kids towards his ex-wife in Boston. I steadily lost interest in the hokey family’s fate. But their point of view affords surreal glimpses of civilization’s collapse. The complacent are going to be shocked that this is not Independence Day , but Saving Private Ryan . This alien Final Solution is Spielberg’s fifth movie troubled by his artistic nemesis, Nazi Germany – the shadow of his own doubt.
Spielberg has spent his career playing to audiences better than anyone – a great entertainer, but not an artist. Now he is a powerful mogul and studio chief of DreamWorks. I am certain that he is trying to become an artist, but the inertia of commerce and fear of failing to connect with an audience are holding him back. His anguished film A.I. showed a Spielberg at war with himself. An intelligent, visionary movie was clawed back into a sentimental fairy tale. Now, The War of the Worlds is filled with images and scenes from previous Spielberg movies. He is looking back. But he is rummaging through an attic filled with toys.
Spielberg told Wired magazine that the older he gets, the less he’s interested in what people think. That’s a hopeful sign. In The War of the Worlds , in a bizarre scene, Tom Cruise is plucked by a tripod. He wriggles free of a colon, is squirted out a sphincter, and deposited into one of two suspiciously egg-shaped cages hanging under the belly of the thing. It can now be said that Spielberg has got a pair.
That scene, and what the aliens want form the people they don’t disintegrate, are Spielberg flexing a muscle atrophied since Jaws , used again on Minority Report: a wicked sense of humor. That’s it – the breadcrumb trail that can lead him out of the forest. May he have the courage to follow it.
The War of the Worlds is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.