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Movie-Hype00604 – WAR OF THE WORLDS

Quite a bit happened leading up to the movie. The previews, the stand-ups in the lobby, the hot employees I managed to talk to. However, I have so much to say about WAR OF THE WORLDS, that I have to forego my usual intro. If I get time I’ll put an addendum on the website.

There’s an old adage in Hollywood that says you have 10 minutes to grab an audience. Steven Spielberg knows this. Think JAWS and the midnight swim; RAIDERS and the great rolling ball; JURASSIC PARK and that cow lowered into the cage. And then there was the opening to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN…

In WAR OF THE WORLDS (WOTW), Spielberg spends his time showing us Ray (Tom Cruise) and his two kids Rachel and Robbie (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin). Ray is a blue-collar guy, doesn’t see his kids very often, and to be honest, doesn’t really want to. Now, we all know Tom Cruise isn’t a heavy-equipment operator any more than he’s a samurai. The great thing about Cruise, though, is that he always sells out to the role and gives it his all. Ray has just a touch of that Tom Cruise-like charm, but it’s a thin cover for the man beneath: not handling life too well and not up for a challenge. (For more on Tom Cruise outside of the movie read my latest column #359 The Sins of Tom Cruise.)

Spielberg—and I—spend a lot of time talking about these three because they are the movie. If you’ve read the book or seen the previews you know Aliens attack. But this movie—and if you pay attention to know other sentence, digest this one—IS NOT ABOUT ALIENS. This is Sci-Fi in its truest sense; the metaphor of the human condition. Let me put it another way: don’t go looking for a popcorn flick with great action, a little T&A, and one-liners tossed off by indestructible heroes. WAR OF THE WORLDS is a horror film.

I don’t think people are going to understand that, which is why I predict WOTW will be the most controversial Spielberg movie ever. Along with A.I. and MINORITY REPORT (two of the three most underrated movies of the decade), Spielberg has entered a new phase, full of darkness and mocking human potential.

Let me pause the drum of war for a moment and talk about Dakota Fanning. Ever since Natalie Portman arrived in THE PROFESSIONAL and then BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, people were looking for that next girl they could say, “Man, when she gets just a little bit older…look out” without sounding totally creepy. Thankfully Emma Watson finally got there in the latest HARRY POTTER film, and we can anticipate the star—and woman—she will become. Dakota Fanning is still too young to say this about, but I can say, “Man, in a two years I will be able to say, ‘Man, in a few years…look out.’”

It’s not meant as a creepy thing, it’s just: she has it. Ever since I first saw her in TRAPPED and I AM SAM I have been fascinated. I remember a C.S.I. episode Fanning was in. She never even spoke, and yet I couldn’t stop looking at her eyes.

This is another one of those performances. WOTW hinges not on what’s happening, but how our small family reacts to it. And it’s this little girl who holds it all together.

Spielberg is just a genius at getting these nuanced performances from children. The kids in JURASSIC PARK, in HOOK, the children in SCHINDLER’S LIST, thought there just briefly; are devastating. Haley Joel Osment’s performance in A.I. is vastly underrated. (You try pretending to be a human.) And then there is E.T.

While we’re on Spielberg, let’s talk about his technique. Aspects of JAWS and JURASSIC PARK are here (the monsters). We get people on the run like in A.I. and MINORITY REPORT, and the relentless chase, best personified by DUEL. We get death and battle on a wide scale as in SCHINDLER’S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. And of course there is the awe and fear of aliens from E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. (And just to make my brother happy, BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED.)

But here we get something totally different. At first I didn’t really understand what it was, but now I see it: Spielberg no longer believes in the triumph of the human spirit. There are no winners here. There is blind luck, coincidence, chance. But survival is not predicated on swift thinking and heroic combat, but rather there for the grace of God.

Afterwards I heard some criticize this as just a Special Effects flick and for a cheap Hollywood ending. I’m not going to hate on how people react—it’s their opinion—but I couldn’t disagree more. The special effects—though flawless—serve ONLY to compound the fear and devastation our characters go through.

As for the ending, it is most decidedly not a Hollywood ending. If that were the case, the humans would have bonded together to defeat the invaders. (Think INDEPENDENCE DAY.) That’s not what happens at all. The movie follows the book, but even then: look at that last scene! Look at where the characters stand, in relationship to each other! Have they survived, really? Will they ever be able to recover? (Watch this film and then listen to those who moan about the terrible ending, and smile to yourself, knowing that you are one of the few who will get the mockery, the slap in the face Spielberg gives us.)

You know; it’s been a great year for movies so far. I enjoyed SIN CITY, REVENGE OF THE SITH, CINDERELLA MAN, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, and BATMAN BEGINS. If I could use a music analogy, SIN CITY was like sitting in some dark out-of-the-way jazz club, amazed at the pure heat and sex of the smoky saxophone, at the notes put together in such a way, all clashing together violently yet somehow slick and polished, like only a jazz master can do.

REVENGE OF THE SITH was like a beautiful dirge, full of beautiful notes that are beautiful and inevitable, and reminding us of the wonderful life that has just passed. CINDERELLA MAN was like the musical ANNIE; trying hard to be real life. Occasionally you realize that orphans can’t sing that well, but you admire the effort. MR. AND MRS. SMITH was like a well-produced pop song; slick, smooth, with a great beat, you like hearing it on the radio and may even sing along, but you won’t remember it six months from now. And BATMAN BEGINS was Metallica at it’s best: starting slow, thoughtful and menacing, but you know they have all those killer guitars and heavy drums and they can unleash it at any time and wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, THERE IT IS!

WAR OF THE WORLDS, to me is like Mozart with Don Giovanni. Mozart was already the best there was, and made it look effortless. He made a lot of crowd pleasers like The Magic Flute, and the common people loved him, but some of the snobs said he lacked weight. In response Mozart gave us Don Giovanni, supposedly a comic opera, but really about a darkly emotionally bereft man who has thousands of lovers because he’s scared of being left himself, and who refuses to repent his ways in the very end. This knock at humanity was little understood then, but since then some (most notably Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard) have argued it is the greatest work of art ever produced.

WOTW may be like that. People are expecting GREASE and are getting opera. I can’t believe I’m citing PRETTY WOMAN, but remember what Richard Gere’s character said: you either get opera from the start, or you will never love it and have it feed your soul.

WOTW is not a film you can watch sitting back making those running jokes to your friends; understanding it is all just a movie. You have to enter into this world. You have to see these people—not heroes—not even survivors; just lucky and numb. How much can one little girl take? How long can her 15 year old brother sit there and watch without doing something? And what about their father, who doesn’t even want the responsibility? Will they crack? Will they rise to the occasion?

This is the true essence of horror. The gut-wrenching decision Ray has to make on the hill. When the wooden door closes in the cellar. The shoe in the mirror. The car and the crowd. You watch this film and enter into its world and then tell me it isn’t one of the scariest films ever made. So much so, that most will refuse to look at it that way, afraid of what they’d find.

I felt like I was kicked in the gut 20 times. I could barely walk afterwards. My head swarmed as I tried to take in the muted buzz of criticism and disappointment from the crowd. Expectations breed results, so I can’t say they are wrong. But I was dizzy and sick at seeing the depths of human suffering. In some ways, this was worse than SCHINDLER’S LIST, which was real people, but in the past, now defeated. This the unknown. True horror is utter ignorance of your foe and impotence to do anything about it. Was this a another metaphor? Is this the emotional core of 9/11? Do the Aliens represent us? Was this a warning shot to our own complacency? I don’t know. I do know that in some ways this movie is so dark that people won’t take it seriously. More’s the pity. We are living in the age of another Mozart, and we don’t even realize it.

June 30, 2005

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1 comment:

elessar said...

I have not watched these films yet. I refused to see Schindler's list--not appealing. I am old enough to be too busy to go out and watch "maybe" films.And now that I can't smoke in a theatre, screw it.Usually.
Osment: Lell (wife) said, "his eyes are really alien; disturbing. can't watch." (But she can watch David Bowie. Go figure.

As good as actors and directors and writer/adaptors are at their craft, what often evokes my heart are the editors and soundtrack track makers.I remix music for a hobby, and I know more music than most 'disk jockeys', and better.I possess about 50,000 songs, and know the writers, or sidemen or record company or SOMETHING about most of what I own. Music in films attracts me. I agree with Hyperion that sometimes, the visuals ang on a specific child's performance. And eyes...gosh, what I would give to have the right eyes, sometimes. So director's need the right perormers...but it's a bigger deal than that. It's anensemble. Some work. Some don't.What works for me might not work for you!No worries--everyone did theit part.
"All the world's stage and the men on it are merely players. They have there exits and their entrances." (Will Shakespeare).

I look forward to seeing the new Harry Potter film, and felt Emma Watson--from the first film onwards, was going to grow up beautiful and wonderful at her craft, on the order of Judi Dench, Julie Andrews, Katherine Hepburn--but not looking like any of them. And give me Emma Thompson,Kate Winslet and Miranda Otis (Eowyn) for lunch. Whoo hoo. (Lell can have Alan Rickman, Jonny Depp and Viggo Mortensen...esp because Viggo plays Aragorn/Elesar in LOTR.)