It’s here: the latest joint effort between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise to save the summer box office from mediocre sales. It’s big, it’s loud, and it’s what you expect an “event” film to be. But the question still remains; will you want to jump up and down on your couch or hide underneath it?
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a night shift dock worker in New Jersey. He arrives home late to find his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) waiting to saddle him for the weekend with his children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin). After a freak storm causes a power outage, something alien rises from underground and proceeds to destroy everything in sight. Without any reason why or foreknowledge of what’s going on, Ray returns home, packs his children up, steals a vehicle, and does what anyone might do who knew these killing machines were coming: run the other way.
If the story of how this film got started is to be believed (told repeatedly by Cruise on various talk shows when he’s not talking about his love life or religious preferences), Spielberg and Cruise did it because they could and weren’t really doing anything else at that particular moment. If true, there’s really nothing these guys couldn’t do if they wanted to short of bearing their own children, but as a spectacle taken out of that context and measured up against the potential of H.G. Wells’ Nineteenth century novel, a few interesting thoughts are to be had following the experience.
The first film that comes to mind is 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. A disaster film only has one thing to do: be as destructive as possible until the special effects department runs out of money or ideas. Story, plot, or anything else is incidental since who lives or dies is essentially based on what mileage you can get out of the death; characters tell the most about themselves by how they died. In Tomorrow, the destruction took center stage over the story of a man trying to rescue his family, but Spielberg’s camp wisely decided to focus on Cruise’s father figure and let the catalyst for destruction (as spectacular as it is) remain in the background and never strays from Cruise’s point of view.
The second film that reared its head in my mind was M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, another alien invasion film told from the point of view of a small Midwestern family dealing with their own problems before setting them aside to deal with the invasion at hand (and recover a little lost faith along the way). As a fallen preacher vs. a deadbeat dad, Mel Gibson was a much more tragic and redeemable hero. Likewise, a moment of truth in Shyamalan’s film is played out as the film’s climax (the decision to run or fight), whereas Cruise’s character is permitted the opportunity to do both. Point in fact, Ray’s character is tested many times instead of only once, often followed by viewing another’s consequences had he decided differently. While Spielberg’s version has a decidedly more gratuitous version of background events, the conviction of these two father figures are ultimately equal, and that isn’t a bad thing.
Lastly, I couldn’t help but think of Saving Private Ryan, specifically in how both depicted the reality of war. Whereas Michael Bay dropped the ball by making Pearl Harbor beautiful and yet unimportant, War of the Worlds never pauses too long watching the destruction because of the neon sign in our heads that keeps flashing, “Shouldn’t we be running right now?” The story of War of the Worlds is kept intact even though it’s been pushed to the background (which could be any war, technically), but while Ryan preached the needs of the one outweighing the few, War clocks in with “Family is everything.”
In the end, people will remember the Tripods rising from the ground, aliens poking through a basement, and one wide-eyed little girl (Dakota Fanning) upstaging the film’s top-billed star every time she’s on screen. With two stories cleverly interwoven around one another, it’s easy to forgive heavy-handed melodrama, more-than-coincidence twists of fates, ready explanations from incidental characters, and a curiously clear path through the destruction leading like breadcrumbs into the next scene. With the inventor of the summer blockbuster directing the biggest movie star on the planet, this drama/ adventure/ horror/ family/ disaster film has its sights set on nothing less than making a ton of cash, yet somehow underneath it all, people leaving the theater will still start to ask, “Well, what would YOU have done if that really happened?”
(a three skull recommendation out of four)