War of the Worlds

Sunday, October 28, 2007

There are three endings you should avoid at all costs, endings which all reek of a massive cop-out. The first ending you should avoid is: everything was a lie. The second ending you should avoid is: everything was a dream. And the third ending you should avoid is: god saved us. Now there are notable exceptions to all of those, but by and large, they're incredibly unsatisfactory. And so it is with War of the Worlds. Faced with an indestructible force, what saves mankind? Courage? Resolve? An unbending will to survive? No. Germs. And if that isn't bad enough, apparently germs that god made. So let me get this straight. God made humans. Then god, you know, for a bit of a laugh, decided to have our planet rampaged by aliens. Then, after he'd had his fun, he allowed the germs that he made destroy the pesky little critters. What a nice bloke.

But the whole pathetic god get-out clause reminds me of the awful Signs. Don't these aliens prepare? Don't they think things through? You know, if you're going to invade a planet that is two-thirds water, and you don't like water, shouldn't you wear a suit in case it rains? And if you're not resistant to Earth's germs, shouldn't you again wear some sort of protection? I would have thought that that would be one of the first things that a superior race would think of. But films show that aliens never learn. Our invaders are always inter-galactic fuckwits.

However, I'm sure people point to H.G. Wells and say that this stupid ending is in the book (as it is in the 50s adaptation). Well, a bad ending is a bad ending, whether it be in a book, film or play. But I can understand why it's there. Wells wrote himself into a corner. I can imagine him getting excited as he creates an indestructible force. What a great idea! What fun! The only problem is when you get to the end. How do you defeat the indestructible? Oops. It's a problem that has plagued every film of this sort. I've already mentioned Signs, but also consider Independence Day. That had to go to ridiculous lengths too. "What can destroy the indestructible aliens? Guns? No. Big guns? No. Huge guns? No. Bombs? No. Massive bombs? No. Nuclear bombs? No." "What, then?" "Er. Er. Er...a computer virus!" "With plenty of Apple product placement thrown in?" "Er, yeah, sure." "Sold!" So if films have taught me anything, it's that if aliens invade, just run and pray, because if you run fast enough and pray hard enough, the almighty, in his infinite wisdom, might allow you to survive and let the viruses do their work.

But while I loathed the ending, I did find much to enjoy in the film. In particular I liked the decision to see the invasion from a narrow focus – through a family. In Independence Day and the 1950s The War of the Worlds, the scope is a lot broader, meaning that everything is less frightening. Here, though, you're just as much in the dark as the family, and that works to the film's advantage. In fact, I wish it would have steered even further in this direction, as the one explanation that is given for the invasion is ridiculous. The aliens buried machines under the planet's surface millions of years ago? Why didn't they just take the planet then? Why did they wait? And how come no one found these machines? You know, when you're building subway tunnels and laying water pipes and power lines, alien machines are the sort of thing that might strike you as peculiar. But as ridiculous as this is, the tension is expertly built up and the invasion is fun.

What I liked most about the film was, unsurprisingly, the action. Call me sadistic, but watching people get vaporised is always going to work for me. And I thought the design of the tripods was excellent. I haven't seen such good CGI for a long time. In fact, some of the shots were just outright fantastic. The harbour scene, in particular, with the machines appearing on the horizon and from under the water, was superb. Then there were the little details of the river flowing with bodies and the train rushing through the station while on fire. That sort of 'normal' horror makes the whole thing seem a lot more real.

Pity, then, that the characters don't elicit more sympathy. They're all rather bland. And the Tim Robbins sequence could have been better. It should have been more sinister. As it is, he seemed to be playing that same character as the one he played in Mystic River. Basically, when he tries to look threatening, Robbins looks like he's going to start crying. But despite that, and despite the fact that the scene with the aliens and the alien probe was the same as the Raptor scene in Jurassic Park, it did have a fair amount of tension. Spielberg is still excellent with set-pieces. And I liked the fact that the aliens were so nasty. The blood was a nice touch. How can you not dig an alien species that terraforms the Earth with human blood?

I just wish that Spielberg would just stop sugarcoating his endings. If the germs and god weren't bad enough, there's the fact that Cruise is reunited with his ex-wife and his son (who seemed to walk off into certain death). The only reason that it's done is so that any genuine emotional distress is kept away from the audience. Don't worry everybody, you'll all die but the stars will survive. Yay!

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