Friday, July 01, 2005

War of the Worlds...KW's Mostly Spoiler-Free Take

Again, by "mostly spoiler-free" I mean that there shouldn't be anything spoiled by this review that a trailer or two wouldn't spoil (or another review for that matter).

This movie rocks!

Man, watching a movie like this makes me wish that Spielberg could just go on ahead and direct every movie ever made. He's that good. His eye for great shots, chilling visuals, and his talent for building tension are rivaled by no other in the business. Period. He's a master.

Anyway, these days you hear a lot about certain directors being great at action (Michael Bay knows how to blow things up, or David Fincher is great at zooming the camera inside and through things) and I just think that we should step back, look at a film like War of the Worlds, and give Spielberg his due credit. He was staging great action sequences when Michael Bay was still a baby...when Fincher was a wuss. Blowing things up is cool, and so are neato camera tricks, but it's only part of the action sequence. Spielberg gives us the whole enchilada (Mmmmm, enchiladas!).

The few quibbles I have I will address at the end (because I like my last words to be negative, since I'm a jerk). I will start with the things that I love:

- The things we don't see. Man, oh man, it's like filmmaking 101 here. Spielberg takes no fewer than 3 major scenes where something big is going on that we don't get to see. We only get to hear it. In each case, it's because the character we're focusing on can only hear it. But its use is masterful here.

In one scene, as Cruise and kids are hiding out in a basement, there are suddenly all sorts of strange lights and sounds outside. Zooms and buzzes and crashes and bangs. And he and the family don't have any idea what's going on, so neither do we. Any hack director would have cut to a shot outside to show us the "insider's" we'd see what was causing all the ruckus. But someone wise like Spielberg realizes that the true terror for the family comes from not being able to see...and he puts us in their shoes. In the next scene, when Cruise wanders out to see what had happened...the impact of the event is much stronger thanks to the director keeping some secrets to himself for a while.

In another scene, Cruise and family stand on the side of a hill. Over the top of that hill there's something big going on. You can hear explosions and too many military vehicles to count pass the family on their way up over the hill. It sounds like a battle every bit as impressive as the one Spielberg opened Saving Private Ryan with...and, in fact, one character is dying to run the 20 steps up the hill and see what's happening. Again, the tension here is created by not letting us peek over the hill when the characters do not get to do that themselves. They know what's happening, and so do we, and the lack of visuals makes the impact of the sound effects so much stronger. When we finally see some of what's been going on over the hill, again, the effect is better than if we'd seen the entire battle.

Lastly, there's a scene between two characters that basically amounts to a fight. I don't know for sure because it happens behind closed doors. When you see the scene, you'll know why Spielberg shot it this way....the one character not witnessing the fight is who we're to identify with during that scene, and it's powerful.

But overall I want you to understand that the power of a scene can come as much from what the director withholds from us as from what he shows us....a lesson I'm thinking Michael Bay will never learn.

- The van-on-the-interstate montage. There is a scene where Cruise is driving a van on the interstate with his kids each freaking out in their own way. They're trying to find out what's going on, and he's just trying to get them to safety. But pay attention to this scene, and you'll see the camera circle the van almost three times, swooping around and in through the window, then back to the front, then around again. And it's so seamless you almost don't even notice. And that's hard to do folks. Moving car scenes are some of the toughest to film and have them look right. And this scene looks great...very realistic. And the frantic motion of the camera perfectly captures the mood of the characters for us. Again, another instance of camera work serving the story...and not just looking cool.

-Tim Robbins. Dude nearly steals the movie. I like him.

-Dakota Fanning. While we're on the actors....geez, this is the smallest 30-year-old I've ever seen. And I say that because there is no way she's 11. Not at all. I don't buy it. She's got whatever Webster and Gary Coleman have, and she must be at least 30. She's great in the movie, and I've even been annoyed by her in the past.

-Cruise. Yeah, he's great in this. Really good. There is a scene, when his daughter (who is scared out of her mind) is asking him to sing certain lullabies to her, and he keeps having to tell her he doesn't know those songs (he's a deadbeat dad, by the way) and his acting in this scene is just astonishing. Really made me forget he was an actor...and I bought the moment completely.

-I loved the use of color, the various scenes of tension, the awesome imagery...pretty much everything.

-The train!!! The freaking train!!

-Cruise's car is awesome! It's a fastback Mustang (late 60's...) and I want one.

-Camera work, specifically the broken window shot and the camcorder shot. Just cool and clever and fresh.

-The "hiding in the basement from the probe" scene. Great stuff. Again, building tension perfectly. Without dialogue or even much music, Spielberg lets the characters and the camera build the scene's dramatic tension.

Okay, I could go on all day. Here's what I didn�t' like:

-Some of the 9/11 references felt a little heavy-handed, particularly the pictures of missing loved ones.

-There are some characters at the end who really should not be alive, but they are...and there's no explanation given, and it was a little frustrating.

-Speaking of the end, it was jarringly abrupt...not that this makes it bad, but it was unexpected and quick. Movie, movie, movie...BAM, credits. Weird.

-The thing that the ending hinges on...I don't want to say more, because I don't want to give things away, but I didn't know how to feel about the thing the ending hinges on. Is that how the book ends? I hope you can tell what I mean, Chris, because I know you read the book and saying any more would ruin things. Maybe I'll have to wait until we see each other to ask.

-The above mentioned scene about hiding from the probe is very reminiscent of the "hiding from the probe" scene in Minority Report. Not that it makes it any less cool...but there were several shots and scenes that were quite reminiscent of previous Spielberg films--perhaps he was going for homage or a slight wink to the audience...but it was occasionally weird.

-The music. Again, like with Batman, I expected something instantly classic. Not that John Williams' score isn't great...because it is. And it adds tremendously to the film experience. But I thought we'd get some theme....some eerie melody that would forever be linked to War of the Worlds...a la Jaws or any of Williams other works. But I didn't hear that.

All in all, I'd give it an 8 or a 9 out of ten. It really, really rocks. This is how summer action films should be. And as Chris said, it's a testament to how good this movie is that I didn't once think about Katie Holmes or Scientology. And I had even read yesterday right before the film about Cruise's comments regarding aliens (he believes in them, by the way)...but this movie is so good that the outside world just melts away for two hours...and you get sucked in. And that's what's been missing this year at the movies.


At 7/01/2005 11:49:00 AM, Blogger PaulNoonan said...

I haven't seen it yet KW, but your questioning of the ending leads me to believe that it is the same as the books ending. Without giving away a spoiler, this may have been plausible for those thinking in terms of the 19th century, it is utterly implausible today.

At 7/01/2005 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Kennelworthy said...

As far as I can tell (I've been doing some research) the book and the movie have the same--or at least similar--endings. And while my questioning of Spielberg's use of it still remains, I am not sure why you would say it's implausible today. That phrase makes me think I'm being way to vague about what I mean by "the thing the ending hinges on" and that you and I are likely talking about separate things.

Darn the fact that everyone hasn't seen this so I can just come out and say what I'm talking about!!!

At 7/01/2005 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Um...OK, anyone wanting to read this comment or doesn't care should know that I'll be hinting at the ending of this movie. So don't read it unless you've seen it or you're Paul Noonan. :)

Having read the book and seen the movie--well, yes, they are the same (as I mentioned in my own review, I found it amazing how closely the movie followed the book--I mean, Spielberg didn't even follow JURASSIC PARK that closely). I also don't see how that it can't be plausible today, but perhaps Paul can enlighten us.

At 7/01/2005 12:46:00 PM, Blogger PaulNoonan said...

While attempting to remain spoiler free, "the thing that the ending hinges on" (Hereinafter TTTTEHO), wasn't understood as well in 1890 as it is today. Thinking about this today, if a bunch of superadvanced aliens invaded earth, I think they would have thought about this problem and taken measures to counteract it.

If we were invading another planet, even with our current technology, we could probably handle TTTTEHO. A significantly more advanced civilization would certainly have it figured out. Not only that, isn't it likely that they would have encountered TTTTEHO before?

This didn't seem like their first invasion to me. In the book it clearly is their first invasion as they are Martians (they're not still Martians, right? I mean, we would have noticed that by now). If you've become that advanced at intergalactic space travel, you should have already suffered this setback. Maybe it was the first time, but I would think that your first encounter with TTTTEHO would be in a mission of exploration, not conquest.

It's not as implausible as the end of "Independence Day" though.

At 7/01/2005 01:00:00 PM, Blogger MuppetLord said...

I thought it was a brilliant film. Not having read the book, but having the Jeff Wayne musical CD version, I can confirm the end is the same. It would have been better if it had been drawn out a little more, but no worries.

As far as whether they are Martians or not, I have no idea. I find it funky about the machines (not mentioning specifics in case people haven't seen it).

Regarding the ultimate cause of the ending...why would they get it right? Does time have an effect?

Whatever, it is a very good film, and the use of noise instead of visuals is a nice touch.

At 7/01/2005 11:30:00 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

It is true to the ending of the book; in fact, the narrator at the beginning and the end of the movie is using Wells's own words. (That part of the presentation is not as good. Wells's protagonist could credibly speak of being observed from space or of the later bacteriological research. Cruise's character can not.)

Now, about that train ... sorry to nit-pick, but it bothers me when movie directors write something for a train that dispenses with the dead-man control.

At 7/05/2005 09:52:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

I cannot wait to see this damn thing finally. I haven't read most of the talkbacks since they seem to have some spoilers in them. Due to a fourth of July vacation that I just got back from today I won't be seeing this till probably Thursday, but you guys have definately got me siked.


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