War, What Is It Good for? Absolutely Nothin’
All right, everybody. Let’s all take a deep breath and get it out of our collective system. Say it with me: ‘“Boy, that Tom Cruise sure is cuh-razy!’”
Excellent. Now let’s talk about War of the Worlds, the latest exercise in America’s youngest Fourth of July tradition: global destruction as entertainment. Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced, emotionally distant father taking care of his two children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) on the worst weekend in recorded human history. A rash of global lightning storms has awakened an army of giant, three-legged killing machines from the depths of the earth. Invulnerable to America’s military might, they stalk across the landscape, dismantling human civilization along the way.
Though the exposition is somewhat flimsy, the film sets into a sprint immediately. The spectacle takes over, and there are some jaw-dropping moments to rival the best disaster flicks ever filmed. The special effects are great, but they don’t detach you from the events onscreen. While masses of people get spectacularly vaporized, we see much more solemn moments through the eyes of the shell-shocked survivors. Spielberg obviously wants you to feel the pangs of loss in your gut. It’s not an easy thing to show an imaginary genocide without treating the people as props, but he pulls it off. The mass hysteria is conveyed effectively enough through the microcosm of Ray’s family, and the film’s weak script is temporarily eclipsed by its epic scale. But all that changes with the ending, which ‘— fair warning ‘— I’ll be discussing now, so anyone who wishes to avoid spoilers should stop reading.
In Tim Robbins’ short time onscreen, he unwittingly articulates the biggest problem with War of the Worlds. ‘“This is no more a war than there is a war between men and maggots,’” he says. ‘“This is an extermination.’” And he’s right ‘– for the film’s entirety, it amounts to a scramble for survival. This point is belabored in virtually every scene: these machines are indestructible. Conventional weapons have no impact on them, neither gunfire nor missile making as much as a scratch; the only thing to do is run and hide, and the resulting suspense carries the film. But an alien victory is evidently unthinkable to the film’s writers, so near the end, for reasons almost completely unexplained, the alien ships become spontaneously vulnerable, and that’s that. It happens so quickly you might miss it ‘— I must have, because I can’t make a bit of sense out of it. The film hits a brick wall, and the impact is fatal.
The finale of War of the Worlds is a disaster in its own right. It’s a shame that this film, with so much technical brilliance to its credit, should be spoiled by an idiot plot device and a logic-defying, tacked-on happy ending. It’s almost as if Spielberg is daring me to dislike the movie, given how great much of it is. Fine, I’ll take that dare. The conclusion is so abrupt and shoddily executed it negates nearly everything enjoyable about the movie, because I now know that all the grandeur was leading up to a lame non-ending the likes of which I haven’t seen since Jurassic Park III. Those concerned that Tom Cruise will ruin the movie can take cold comfort in knowing that his tabloid antics don’t even rate with the film’s ultimate disappointment.
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