It’s summer—and that means it’s time for some blockbuster madness. It’s no surprise then that, last week, we were treated to a big budget sci-fi spectacle directed by none other than Steven Spielberg and starring that couch-catapulting Scientologist named Tom Cruise. Of course I’m talking about H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
I wasn’t looking forward to this film. All of Cruise’s cuckoo-crackers assumptions about Brooke Shields’ personal life, all the publicity appearances where he detracted from the film to leap like a loon or accuse Matt Lauer of pushing Ritalin really soured me on the project, despite Spielberg’s A-list credentials. Besides, the H.G. Wells classic has been a favorite of mine since I read it in junior high and I just couldn’t see Tom saving the world amid countless explosions and sizzling special effects.
Still, despite my misgivings, I inched toward the theater among clusters of teenagers chatting on their cell phones. As if on cue, a thunderstorm gathered overhead. I soldiered on, as duty calls when you’re the Box Office Belletrist. After about 15 trailers and commercials for Skittles, the movie began. Amending the novel’s first paragraph by changing the 19th century setting to the 21st, we’re immediately in New York (instead of England) and we see Tom as Ray Ferrier. He’s a deadbeat dad with two kids and an ex-wife pregnant with her new hubby’s baby. In the book, the narrator has a wife that he refers to, but no children. He doesn’t even have a name, for that matter.
The invaders in this War of the Worlds are not from Mars since now, in 2005, we know there are no Martians. But it is interesting to speculate where they may be from since this is never discussed or revealed in the movie. Another stand out aspect of the film is how quickly everything unravels. In the book, it takes several chapters before the aliens come out of their underground hiding places. Of course this is Hollywood and we need to get to the point quickly. Despite the added family drama and the location and era change, there are no other major plot differences between the book and the movie.
Spielberg takes what Wells created and reinvents it. The alien tripods referenced in the book were menacing, and Spielberg’s interpretation is more sinister than I ever imagined. Like a cross between the Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back and mammoth octopi dressed in kinky S&M gear, the creepy crafts move liquidly through the world while shooting those classic green death rays.
Spielberg also includes ‘Ogilvy’ the astronomer from Wells’ book. In the update, he is played by Tim Robbins. This character, more or less a madman living in a cellar, displays a charm and humor not evident in the rest of the cast. And then there are the red weeds. Again modernizing Wells’ original ideas, Spielberg makes them living and vein-like, throbbing with something unnamable and seeped in horror.
I actually wanted the movie to undermine the book and fail to capture its concepts and characters just because Tom Cruise irritates me so much. That way it would be easier for me to come here and gripe about it. But the movie is able to convey the essence of the book so well, I found the experience a little perplexing. After thinking it over, I realized that this is because the book isn’t character-driven. It’s mostly a non-stop narrative concerned only with the bigger picture.
At the novel’s heart, Wells was trying to tell us something about the wasting of natural recourses and going to war with each other. Crafted in 1898, some speculate the novel was written in response to historical events, like the rise of the Confederacy in the US, or the militarization of Germany. Similarly, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds grapples with issues that dominate the 21st Century. Subtle 9/11 references pepper the film, like the flying papers and ash in the sky over Manhattan, or the names of missing people etched on a wall that is erected after the invaders have begun to attack.
While watching the film, I was reminded of Signs. I suspect that Wells’ book may have inspired M. Night Shyamalan’s movie a great deal. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is the part of Shyamalan’s film that we didn’t get to see. While inside their house in the cornfields of Pennsylvania, Mel Gibson and his family miss the terror unfolding around them. In War of the Worlds, it’s all over the place. You couldn’t’ miss it if you tried. I actually feared that the visual effects might begin to irritate me, but they never did. They were just that good.
Wells’ science fiction novels have an underlying pessimism aimed at the future and humanity. In the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds, the narrator is reunited with his wife, yet there is a disquiet hanging over the reunion. Even though Spielberg’s version is far darker than E.T., he doesn’t miss an opportunity to add some comparable sugarcoated Hollywood sentimentality. Actually, there were a lot of these moments in the film, ones that made the audience go, “awwwww”. Honestly, I believe this is part of the Spielberg appeal. In his movies, nothing is hopeless, and the War of the Worlds ending is proof of this.
Incidentally, there are moments in War of the Worlds very reminiscent of Spielberg’s other films. The visuals and audio have his stamp all over them. The deep foghorn-like groan of the alien vessels brings to mind the bellow of the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are also moments that conjure up the flickering, otherworldly lightshow of Poltergeist.
When Orson Welles transmitted his famous radio broadcast across the airwaves in 1939, people panicked and ran for the hills. H.G. Wells himself even criticized the production for taking unwarranted liberty with his work. I thought I would do the same once I entered the theater, unable to tolerate the mishandling of a classic novel. But Spielberg delivered after all, and even though Tom Cruise is unbearably annoying as a human being, he is very good as Ray Ferrier. The 2005 World of the Worlds may be one of the few times where the credit “based on the book by…” actually has a legitimate meaning.
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