Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a middle-aged divorcee with a blue-collar job and a rundown home in the New Jersey suburbs. When his ex-wife unexpectedly drops his estranged kids—ten year old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and sixteen year old Robbie (Justin Chatwin)—off for the weekend, Ray is less than pleased. He’s always struggled with his parental duties, but now finds it increasingly difficult to communicate with his children. However, events beyond his control are about to force Ray to come to terms with his responsibili…ies. Bizarre lighting storms herald the arrival of alien tripods, which explode from beneath the Earth’s surface and begin dispensing death and destruction on the surrounding countryside. Narrowly avoiding the first attack, Ray returns home, grabs his kids and embarks on a frantic journey across country to find their mother in Boston.
Tom Cruise is likeable in the lead role, and manages to pull off the everyman act fairly convincingly for someone as famous as he is. He’s definitely grown as an actor in recent years—starting with his turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—and I am becoming increasingly interested in his work. Of the rest of the cast, only Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin have any real screen time. In this movie Fanning isn’t really required to do much beyond acting like a terrified ten year old girl, which she does with her usual brilliance. I’m constantly amazed by how self-assured and composed she remains in the presence of superstars such as Cruise and De Niro (not to mention a director like Spielberg). Chatwin also puts in a decent performance as Ray’s moody teenaged son, accurately portraying the kind of sullen resentment that many children of broken marriages harbor towards their ‘unfit’ parents.
For the first hour or so the story moves at a frenetic pace, with Ray battling to escape the horrific destruction of his hometown and bring his children to ‘safety’ in Boston. The scenes in which the first tripod emerges and begins to obliterate everything in site are awesome, as the victims of the heat ray simply turn to dust at its touch without even the luxury of a terrified scream. It’s not until the actors enter a disused farmhouse that the film takes a turn for the worse, with the unnecessary reveal of the aliens and a silly sequence in which Ray single-handedly takes down an alien war machine. After the tense, action packed opening and middle acts the film just peters out towards its very abrupt ending.
There are a number of serious logical flaws that really take the shine off of the movie. I’ve no problem with the makers updating the film to a contemporary setting, but why on Earth did they decide that the aliens were, to paraphrase the marketing blurb, ‘already here’? It makes for an impressive reveal of the tripod menace, but it’s fairly nonsensical. Why would an incredibly advanced alien race travel x-number of light years to bury machines under the ground when they could simply have deployed them from orbit? Furthermore, wouldn’t the aliens have developed significantly more advanced technology over the years between the burial and activation of their machines? Why go to war in outdated hardware? I was hoping Spielberg would address these issues in a possible commentary track, but alas no.
War of the Worlds had the chance to earn itself a place in the hall of great films from Spielberg. However, it decided to take a road very often traveled by making the movie seem overly simplified for its audience. This resulted in the film being entertaining, yet resulted in me not really grabbing much from the film.
Presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced (not to mention progressively encoded), War of the Worlds looks pretty good. It’s definitely not up there with the very best discs available (such as the digital-to-digital Revenge of the Sith), but on the whole it’s quite pleasing. The transfer is more naturalistic than, say, the aforementioned Sith, but still presents colors and flesh tones in a muted, stylized way. The film has a very dark look for the most part, but it’s fairly well-rendered nonetheless. As events progress and we enter the dank, gloomy world of Ogilvy’s basement, the transfer presents excellent shadow delineation–I could even make out the buttons on Ray’s jacket in the half light, which is very impressive considering I don’t have the best sight. However, as with the film itself, there are negative aspects that prevent the transfer from attaining the level of excellence one might expect. For starters, some scenes exhibit what could be called ‘excessive’ blooming.. I can’t remember back to the theatrical showing I caught to compare it with the DVD presentation, but from various still images and trailers I’ve seen it would appear that the DVD is considerably more washed out than it should be. This is particularly apparent during the war scenes, where flames are more yellow than orange. It’s a pity that these little faults tarnish what could have been an outstanding transfer.
War of the Worlds includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. I chose the latter for the purposes of the review, but there didn’t seem to be a lot between them from what I heard. Whichever track you opt for you’ll be in for an aural feast, as War of the Worlds features an impressive mix. From the outset there are plenty of ambient effects—such as the hustle and bustle of the docks where Ray works—and by the time the alien ‘lightning’ strikes, the viewers’ ears are totally immersed in the audio mix. When the tripods emerge the soundtrack really kicks into overdrive as the track demonstrates plenty of directionality in the form of exploding buildings and heat rays, which scorch past the listening position. You might think that all of this noise would render the dialogue somewhat indistinct, but that never becomes an issue—everything remains decidedly crisp. John Williams’ score is, for once, not immediately recognizable, but as the action warms up the familiar Williams touches become apparent. It’s vastly different to the composer’s usual scores (such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park), but it suits the mood of the piece very well and manages to be both somber and uplifting in the right places.
As is the norm nowadays, disc two houses all the extra’s…
- Revisiting the Invasion (8:00): Spielberg spends most of the running time discussing the relevance of the film in a ‘post 9/11’ context, how the George Pal version (and alien invasion in general) was a direct response to people’s fears about the Soviet Union and nuclear war. There is also interview footage with Tom Cruise as he discusses the genesis of the film and its story. Probably the most interesting aspect of the featurette is David Koepp’s explanation of their determination to avoid invasion movie clichés, such as the destruction of famous landmarks and TV news teams being wiped out while reporting on the events.
- H.G. Wells Legacy (7:00): This features both the grandson and great-grandson of Wells himself, who are visiting the set of the movie while it’s still in production. We learn a little bit more about Wells’ early years, his beginnings as a writer and how The War of the Worlds was a response to British colonialism. It’s nice to have a featurette, however short, that recognises the genius behind the original story, lest we forget that it’s not entirely the product of Hollywood writers.
- Spielberg and The Original War of the Worlds (8:00): This feature covers Spielberg’s love for the original film and features actors Gene Barry and Ann Robinson very prominently, discussing their roles in both the original and their cameos in Spielberg’s version. There is much discussion of the disparity between the costumes in this version and the old (the actors in the 50s version had two costumes while in the modern retelling Cruise alone had sixty jackets), along with memories of George Pal and Byron Haskin. We also hear from special effects legend Dennis Muren, who talks about his love for the original movie. We also learn about the design for the war machines and the Martians, the latter of which only had extra long arms because they made the body smaller and didn’t have time to do the arms to mach!
- Characters: The Family Unit: The standard meet the actor behind the character extra. There are interviews with most of the principal cast, including Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Miranda Otto. Of all players I was particularly impressed with young Dakota Fanning, who continues to demonstrate maturity beyond her years. Spielberg himself says that he believes her to be the most talented juvenile actor working today and I’m inclined to agree. The segment includes a fair smattering of behind the scenes material, but as with the previous featurettes it’s all pretty promotional in nature. It would have been nice to have some candid interviews with the stars. Strangely enough Tim Robbins is absent from the piece, in spite of having more screen time than Miranda Otto.
- Pre-visualization (8:00): This feature deals with the process of creating animated storyboards for the film’s set pieces. There’s an interesting statement by Spielberg at the beginning of this featurette, in which he says that he never used to bother with pre-vis as he feels that he does his best work without any preconceived ideas or notions. However, his friend George Lucas has ‘inspired’ him to use pre-vis in recent years. Make of that what you will, but I think the quality of the director’s work says more than I ever could. Talking of Lucas, with the end of the Star Wars prequels Spielberg was able to move most of the ILM team who worked on those films over to his movie. I think they did a remarkable job given the restrictive timeframe.
- Production Diaries: East Coast – The Beginning (22:00): This feature covers the extremely fast turnaround between green-lighting the movie and getting it out to theatres (around nine months). There is interview footage with Spielberg, Cruise, producer Kathleen Kennedy, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Pablo Hellman (of Industrial Light and Magic), production designer Rick Carter, Doug Chiang and more, who take us through the steps necessary to get a film of this magnitude out in such a short space of time. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the first day of principal photography, including an interesting piece of footage which revels that the aliens’ heat ray was originally envisioned as immolating its victims instead of turning them to dust. It was actually pretty interesting to see how the effects for the intersection scene (in which the tripod first emerges) were shot. Most of the scene was accomplished with the use of digital effects due to the constraints of the shooting location, which made practical effects impossible. It’s amazing to see how many different techniques were involved in bringing the scene to life.
- Production Diaries: East Cost – Exile (20:00): The feature deals primarily with the ferry sequence, and includes interview footage with many of the participants from the previous featurette. There were over a thousand extras involved in this sequence alone, along with military advisors, support staff, and the regular cast and crew. Although a lot of the sequence was shot on location, much of the stunt work was done in a water tank to prevent the stunt people getting hyperthermia. There’s also footage of the climactic scenes in Boston, which utilized real soldiers from the American armed forces, as well as footage from the scene in which the army engages the war machines on the hill.
- Production Diaries: West Coast – Destruction (30:00): This feature examines the larger set pieces. We also go to the rundown farmhouse in a section that features the only real interview footage of Tim Robbins’ deranged ambulance driver/survivalist Harlan Ogilvy. Robbins has a small but important role in the film, and delivers an interesting performance quite far removed from anything I’ve previously seen him act out. Other scenes that are explored include the destruction of the buildings during the initial tripod attack (with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong) and the ferry sequence. It’s particularly interesting to see how this scene was filmed, with all of the practical elements employed to make things look as convincing as possible.
- Production Diaries: West Coast – War (22:00): One of the first things Spielberg says in this featurette is that he loves having real elements to his films, and that he’s not interested in making movies where everything is filmed against blue/green screen. He needs the practical elements to inspire him creatively. Spielberg talks about his respect for the men and women who craft these huge, practical sets, and we’re taken behind-the-scenes of the ‘red weed’ sequences at the farmhouse. David Koepp also discusses the genesis of the ‘humans as fertilizer’ element of the script as a natural evolution of Wells’ original metaphor for the assimilation of our world by his Martians. It’s quite a horrifying thought. Another terrifying element of the film is that of the mob mentality which prevails during the diner scene. It scary to think that this kind of intense situation can and does turn otherwise rational people into violent animals.
- Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens (14:00): This feature explores the genesis of the aliens, and features interviews with Spielberg, Ryan Church, Doug Chiang and Dennis Muren. We get to see how the animators envisioned and realized the CGI creations; specifically in regard to applying the alien’s tri-limbed biology to the war machines (each machine has three legs, three eyes and so on). It’s quite an interesting piece that shows just how much work goes into the design of the various special effects. The war machines actually remind me of the harvesting machines from The Matrix and its sequels.
- Scoring War of the Worlds (12:00): The feature deals with both the effects and scoring processes, but concentrates mainly on the latter. There is plenty of interview footage with John Williams, in which he discusses the rationale behind the score. Apparently this is the first collaboration between Spielberg and Williams in which the composer has not seen the completed film before beginning work on the score. Williams began writing having only seen sixty minutes of the movie, which was enough to allow him to get a ‘feel’ for the music. The man is, quite simply, a genius. The score is quite different from your traditional Williams’ effort, so much so that it’s not as immediately identifiable as even his work on Minority Report or Catch Me If You Can.
- We Are Not Alone (3:00): A somewhat strange little piece that seems incongruous with the rest of the bonus material. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie, instead talking about Spielberg’s previous films and the childhood memories that influenced them. Cruise also appears momentarily to discuss his admiration for the director. As I said, it’s an odd little piece that left me slightly puzzled.
War of the Worlds is an entertaining sci-fi romp that takes a novel approach to the whole ‘alien invasion’ scenario. It’s interesting to witness the events predominantly through the eyes of an average American family, without all of the usual clichés involving convenient made-made solutions like computer viruses. The film is a solid two hours worth of entertainment that only really falters towards the end. Paramount’s two-disc special edition is really a mixed item. While the video transfer is something of a letdown, especially when compared to the transfer of other blockbusters like Revenge of the Sith or Batman begins, the audio elements of the disc are simply first rate. The supplemental features also have hidden depths that serve to elevate them above the standard bonus features that are just thrown on. If you’re a fan of the film then I have no trouble recommending the release, but those of you who demand the very best from your audio-visual experience, you may feel a little let down in the video quality department.
Special Features List
- Revisiting the Invasion: Introduction with Steven Spielberg
- Featurette: The H. G. Wells Legacy
- Steven Spielberg and the Original War of the Worlds
- Characters: The Family Unit
- Production Diaries: East Coast – Beginning
- Production Diaries: East Coast – Exile
- Production Diaries: West Coast – Destruction
- Production Diaries: West Coast – War
- Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens
- Scoring War of the Worlds
- We Are Not Alone