Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Belated Review of "War of the Worlds"

Another post long overdue ... this one fulfilling a promise I made to Eric Siegmund at Fire Ant Gazette and Patti at Texas Trifles, and writing a review of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

It's hard to raise an issue, or even just a point, that has not already been covered - and covered well, or at least thoroughly - elsewhere. So, I'll just touch on some of the concerns I raised
earlier this year, before the film was released.

"Will the Martians be absolutely unbeatable by anything 'Man' can bring to bear upon them," I asked in that earlier the post. The reason I asked was because the battle between the Martian invaders and the British armed forces provided much of the drama in
Wells' original novel. The tripods were vulnerable to the Royal Artillery Corps, and one of the most exciting scenes in the novel was the battle between the ironclad HMS Thunder Child and three tripods threatening boats full of refugees.

I had predicted, earlier, that Spielberg would produce something of a hybrid, borrowing some things from Wells' novel, and some things from Byron Haskins' classic
1953 film. And, that's exactly what Spielberg did. The tripods have the shields that Haskins introduced to the story, but Spielberg finds a way through those shields, giving his tripods a small degree of vulnerability, just as Wells originally gave them.

So, why is the degree of vulnerability important? Because it was a significant factor in the story's development ... and in the underlying messages Wells wished to convey. As I pointed out before, Wells lived and wrote at the height of the British empire ... but he was no fan of the means by which that empire was sometimes reached, writing ...

"And before we judge the aliens too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

So, in Wells' story, humans become the savages battling a technologically-superior invader. Sure, the savages have their moments of victory ... their Isandhlwanas and their Little Big Horns ... but their final defeat and extermination is inevitable.

Spielberg's battle between human and Martian forces captures the sense of that struggle, though he assigns the small victories to his star, Tom Cruise, who blows one tripod up himself, and later rallies American troops to attack another tripod ... stretching credibility well beyond the breaking point, but giving Cruise an opportunity to play action hero.

So, while Spielberg's film would not allow the battle that was a favorite chapter of mine in the book, he did recreate that scene to some degree ... as three tripods appear on a hilltop, then stride down into a village, and attack a ferry and other water craft that are trying to cross a large river ... but no HMS Thunder Child with its gallant crew, alas.

In many places, Spielberg nails the story. Advances in digital effects (not available to Haskins, who settled for his gliding war machines) allows Spielberg to produce totally-believable tripods that combined the traits of both the 'fighting machines' and the 'handling machines' that Wells' described. Spielberg also backs off some from the heavy-handed religious tone that filled much of Haskins' film, turning back to the tone of the novel. The Martians ultimately fall prey to terrestrial diseases, to bacteria, among the simplest of Earth's life forms, "which God, in his wisdom, created." Wells was a staunch advocate for evolution and presented the fight between human and Martian (and bacteria and Martian!) as another of the struggles in which species engage to survive.

Personally, I think Wells' story had more than enough plot and characters to carry a film. But Spielberg didn't, and this was where most of gripes over the film stem from. So, we add a couple of smart-aleck, screaming kids (really wouldn't be a Spielberg film without those) with which Cruise has to re-establish a relationship over the course of the film ... the result being that an interplanetary war for dominion over the Earth, and the extermination of the human race periodically has to take a back seat to a crazy road trip during which Tom Cruise must come to terms with himself, his fractured relationships with his children and his forgotten responsibilities as a parent ... I kept squirming in my seat, wondering what the Martians were up to while we were wasting out time on all that silliness.

Other ridiculous additions to the story ... the plane crash, the television news crew, and having the Martian machines placed under the Earth's crust thousands of years in the past so that we could devote so much time to storm scenes as the Martian's are squirted into the cockpits.

If my gripes seem small in comparison to the rest of this post ... they ARE. I enjoyed the film, and it was well worth the price of a ticket. But I won't go back a second time, and I probably won't rush to get the DVD when it's released in November ... it was okay, but it wasn't THAT good.

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