It’s terrifying, because it’s exactly what happens. You lose your sense of compassion and reason, and you just try to survive. And you think about war zones, and you think about how that must happen — the inhumanity that occurs within a war zone.
— Tim Robbins, Washington Post (28 June 2005)
“Our world has been watched by intelligences greater than our own,” warns Morgan Freeman’s voiceover. This would be War of the Worlds‘ introduction to its pseudo-philosophical underpinnings (and literary source, as the language is drawn from H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel). It also accompanies a generally biological framework, as the opening credits sequence displays the cellular activity that will eventually serve a crucial function in this very expensive ($135 million) alien invasion flick.
Directed by king of the big-stakes B-movies Steven Spielberg, this War of the Worlds combines his usual preoccupations — gangbusters effects, smart compositions, and domestic trauma. Both smart-looking and simple-minded, the movie powers along on visual tricks and the frequent terrorizing of Dakota Fanning, until it peters out completely by the final act. While the petering is partly attributable to the source (which the film follows when it wants to), it also rather undermines the family saga created by Spielberg and writers Josh Freidman and David Koepp, by turning Tom Cruise into Ethan Edwards. That is, the other family members become props along the way of his journey.
This journey starts in Bayonne, New Jersey, where dockworker Ray (Cruise) resists his foreman’s pleading that he take an extra shift because he has his kids this weekend. He’s a half-hour late to meet them, and his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) is looking rosy and pregnant with her new husband Tim (David Alan Basche). She’s tired of Ray’s perpetual acting out. Ray’s recklessness isn’t so appealing as Maverick’s might have been. Instead, he’s just a disappointment to his surly 15-ish son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), though maybe still a source of hope for Rachel (Fanning). She’s ten-hear-old, you know, so she has more patience. A brief, strained game of backyard catch reveals that Robbie is furious at his father, resenting both his absence and perennial selfishness; when Ray expresses his own rage equally childishly (the kid calls him an “asshole,” he calls Robbie a “dick”), it’s little wonder that the boy takes off in dad’s car, without permission or a license.
The details of this domestic strife are telling and almost absorbing, but the film cuts directly to the action that will serve as a frame or substitution for characterization, depending on how you look at it. While Cruise almost looked complicated riding the intermittently high-octane rhythms of Minority Report, in War of the Worlds, he looks mostly secondary, to explosions, mob scenes, or alien tripods striding over the earth like T-Rexes. What seems like lightning strikes awaken the long-legged tripods, literally birthing themselves up out of the ground, pavement buckling and cracking as people, including Ray, watch in astonishment. It’s the watching that dooms them initially and makes them look like those awestruck bystanders watching the Twin Towers catch fire, unable to comprehend what they were seeing. They can’t anticipate that the machines will, seconds later, be detonating buildings and zapping human targets into a dust that also recalls the white detritus that clung to people running from the area where the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11.
What comes next is a prolonged look at unthinkable devastation, structured as one family’s severely troubled dynamics: Ray runs back to his home, where he’s left the kids, and they’re stunned by his stun. He can’t even speak to tell them what he’s seen. His first instinct is to move them. He packs ketchup and hot sauce in a box and loads the kids into a stolen car, the only working vehicle in sight, determined to drive the kids to their mother in Boston, imagining against odds that this end will provide safety. If the first part of the film offers an absorbingly detailed look at the family’s dysfunction, the ride in the minivan tightens the focus, as they struggle to make sense of the disaster unfolding around them. “Is it terrorists?” asks Rob. No, says dad, this “came from someplace else.” Rob tries again: “What do you mean, like Europe?”
This brief comedy only sharpens the scares that follow, not all caused by aliens. Indeed, two of the most awful scenes involve people fighting each other: a mob attacks the minivan, its members panicky to take it, without regard for Rachel’s piercing, Drew Barrymore-like shrieks. This and other particulars — a monstrous surveillance eye on a sinuous, seemingly endless arm invades Harlan’s basement; a flaming, apparently passengerless train rushes by; clothes from disintegrated victims float through tree branches; a peanut butter sandwich Ray has thrown at the kitchen window slides almost imperceptibly down the glass as he wonders what to do next; Ray asks a man fumbling through a crashed plane, “Are you a passenger?” — create a potent mix of recognizable and fantastic moments.
Such moments are fleeting. One of the longer scenes occurs in a basement, where Ray contends with Harlan (Tim Robbins), a survivalist who has stocked the place with weeks’ worth of food. Plainly a bit zooey, Harlan insists he intuits the aliens’ purpose, just like he’s seen too many movies. Though he seems to offer refuge, Harlan’s made his own sense of what’s going on, stuck away in this basement and hoping to tunnel (with a spade) to secure ground. As Harlan puts it, “They’ve been planning this for a million years,” even if they haven’t precisely schemed it out just right. They’re nasty, they’re patient, they’re evildoers, enough said.
Harlan’s understanding depends on not seeing, on projecting and imagining. In this, he’s the film’s ultimate human threat, unreasoning and fearful, vengeful because he has no other system. His lack of vision corresponds with but also counters Ray’s instinct, which is to keep his kids from seeing. Unable to control what’s happening, unable to fight back, he tries to hide. Even when Robbie suggests he’s a coward for not fighting back, for not joining up on the spot with the National Guard, rolling through in Humvees and tanks. Ray suggests they find a way to manage this that “does not involve having your 10-year-old sister joining the army,” but Robbie is furious and he can’t see. Or rather, he wants to see.
Ray’s self-appointed mission, meanwhile, becomes the limitation of Rachel’s view. It’s impossible, of course, and her wide eyes take up long minutes of screen time. “You’re going to want to look around,” he tells her following one particular obliteration, but warns her to keep her eyes closed as he carries her through this site of bodiless wreckage. When he determines that he must commit a violent at against a person (as opposed to an alien), Ray instructs her to sing a lullaby, to face away from the noise he’s about to make; the camera close on Rachel’s distraught face as she concentrates on her lyrics.
But while Rachel’s fright becomes a spectacle for you, her decision not to look makes her a poor viewer stand-in. Like Robbie, you need to look. Robbie reflects your position more than his sister, whose horrified face seems so blatantly representative. Indeed, the fact that we don’t see what Robbie sees makes him embody the sort of trauma that can’t be put into words, made visible or coherent. He’s the film’s excess, the part that gets away and can’t make sense.