WotW, a Critique

At least one of you wanted to know what I disliked about Spielberg’s rendition of War of the Worlds. So:

I’m not going bitch about departures from cannon. I realize that the motion picture is a very different art form from the written word. The fact that the movie diverged so far from the book as to have almost no relation to whatsoever it is irrelevent to my criticisms.

First, plot: the aliens buried their war machines under the surface of the earth “before there were even people”, so that when people evolved, millions of years later, they would be ready! Wouldn’t it have been simpler to have just taken the planet before people came along?

So they have the technology to transport and bury emourmous battle mechs, and to magically transport themselves via lightning storms from wherever-the-hell-they-came-from, but apparently they can’t transport both at the same time. Instead, they had to peer into the future and keep their machines in waiting, until such time as there would be enough humans covering the earth that they can… exterminate them all.

Also, isn’t it awfully convenient that these prehistoric spider holes were largely located directly under modern-day cities?

I expect a certain… laxity in summer blockbuster plots, but this…. did anyone even read the screenplay before they started filming?

And how about characters? First rule of a good movie is to have character sympathy. If the audience doesn’t care about the characters they don’t care your movie. Well, except for the cretins who only watch for the explosions 😉 Cruise’s near-deadbeat dad and his horrid progeny are three of the most irritating protagonists I have ever laid eyes on. Clue to directors: when your heroes are so insufferable that the audience starts rooting for the aliens, you have a problem. Watching the three interact was the cinematic equivalent of nails on a blackboard. Great big martian nails. Oh right, sorry, great big wherever-the-hell-they-came-from nails.

And finally, the film was death-pornography just as much as any slasher flic. Sure, Spielberg “tastefully” pans away from most of the violence, but little is left to the imagination. People are vaporized, crushed, drowned, burned, and exsanguinated as we watch in fascinated horror (at least that’s the idea, presumably). The older I get, the less use I have for these summer disaster flics, trading on the attraction of ever-more-realistically portrayed megadeaths. All this carnage, but hey! So long as our heroes survive, it’s OK!

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, I don’t care. It just has little attraction for me any more. The world has so many deadly real horrors; why invent more? Especially when you don’t even have a decent story to tell?

I have rarely been so ready to walk out of a movie before the end. This was no uplifting tale of man’s triumph against all odds, or even a wow-inducing special-effects thrill ride. It was just tragedy and disaster punctuated by periods of excrutiating, misplaced sentimentality.

Oh, and since it was, after all, a Spielberg film, lots of people looking. Hours and hours of people looking. If you want to experience War of the Worlds for less than a full ticket price, have a friend stand in front of you, looking over your shoulder with wide, horrified eyes while another friend sets off firecrackers behind you for two hours.

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17 Comments

  1. I agree with the plot difficulties. I was wondering the same thing. I also wondered what the helll happened to the son. No hint of a story is given, which really dissapointed me.

    I didn’t find the characters to be that annoying, though Tom Cruise was a bit unbelieveable as the everyman.

    I think the true strength of the film (for me at least) was the sense of horror and dread it did create. With the original radio play, people were frightened by an intolerable sense of the unkown and impending doom. The movie, while not able to accomplish this as well primarily because by its nature it shows too much, did create genuinely scary scenes and did veer away from the notion that good ole’ American know-how and spunk will take care of the aliens. Instead it offered a ‘more-realistic’ look at what humanity would be reduced to in terms of disaster and, if looked at with a modern lense, put on display what people have gone through in the wake of the Age of Terrorists.

    1. I reluctantly admit that a certain amount of the spirit of the book was there, in the sense of helplessness against alien horrors. Although I took a look back at the book after seeing the movie, and confirmed my memories: the portrayal of the aliens as invulnerable to human weapons was something introduced by the first movie and swiped by Spielberg. In the book several of the tripods are brought down by good old-fashioned earth weapons. Sure, the humans are massively outgunned; but most of the aliens’ technology is just an evolutionary step ahead of what humans are capable of, rather than being inconceivable to human science.

      …and besides for the son, what about the whole family in Boston? As far as I could tell they looked clean, well-fed and happy. Did they happen to have an alien-cellar where they waited out the invasion playing scrabble and munching nachos while Cruise and co. were running for their lives? The whole thing reminded me of the mega-happy ending to “Wayne’s World”.

    2. P.S.

      I guess I found the bits of the movie that evoked terrorism fears to be exploitive. Things like the “wall of the missing”, while no doubt realistic, just seemed calculated to yank just the right strings in the contemporary consciousness. The net effect struck me as… cheap.

  2. A few thoughts:

    First, while I agree with you that watching the family interact was teeth-grittingly painful at times, this does, unfortunately, square with my real-life experience when it comes to certain familial interactions. I have seen families so willing to squabble (and so full of poisonous anger / bitterness regarding each other) that I’m certain not even the impending end of the world would bring an end to it.

    The son, to me, came off as a very young kid willing to let his temper and bad judgment override his care for his sister–though I’d have left him dead.

    The daughter, I think, was honestly brilliant. Cruise, to me, came off well as the ‘everyman’, most of the time.

    Now, moving on, I agree with every hole you’ve knocked into the plot, and I thought the original story’s plot would’ve worked just fine (re: meteors crashing to earth).

    I think, however, that I understand why the filmmakers of the 1950s (and the ones today) went with the “invulnerable to our weaponry” option. If you notice, Independence Day did largely the same thing–those monsters were invulnerable until they got ‘hacked’.

    The problem, as I see it, is this: If the aliens aren’t immune to our weaponry, we’re going to blow them back into the stone age. Between the 1930s WotW and the 1950s movie we had WWII, obviously today we’ve had the next 50 years to further improve our destructive capability.

    I think you could make a movie where the US / world retained a fighting front while keeping a sense of helplessness, but it requires a lot more work. Its simpler to say: “Oh, we can’t hurt them.” Because if we *can* hurt them, chances are we can hurt them quite a bit–and that ruins the movie’s attempt to build suspense.

    1. Heh, I don’t doubt that some of those family interactions were realistic. But I don’t go to the movies for realistic family squabbling – ESPECIALLY not summer action movies. What was he thinking?

      The problem, as I see it, is this: If the aliens aren’t immune to our weaponry, we’re going to blow them back into the stone age. Between the 1930s WotW and the 1950s movie we had WWII, obviously today we’ve had the next 50 years to further improve our destructive capability.

      It only requires a little imagination to come up with an enemy which is vulnerable but vastly more effective than our forces. Carbon nanotube armor, harder than any substance on earth. Nanites which corrupt our systems. Cybernetic attack coordination which is faster than human reflexes and makes an entire battle group act like a single organism. Organic construction which takes damage – but then heals itself. Ultra-smart munitions. Ubiquitous rail guns. Orbital artillery. And those are just some of the more obvious advances.

      Filmmakers are too stuck on the Star Wars model of combat.

      1. Hey..

        Thanks for the review! I wasn’t really planning on seeing this film–since I have a rather strong loathing for Tom Cruise anyway.. (although he was decent as a bad guy in that last Michael Mann film..)

        in any case.. I agree with you here.. We don’t need mystic force fields and other such things to demonstrate technical superiority.. in fact, I keep wondering why hyper-advanced alien species are always so much stupider than regular earthling graduate students with proclivities for reading science fiction. I mean really, if you are an alien species trying to take over a planet by exterminating the native intelligent species–why interact with them at all at first? If I, personally, were going to take over a planet, I would use some orbital Mass drivers first to soften the humans up a bit. I mean, after you’ve dropped a bunch of rocks on all of the major inhabited centers–and watched civilization collapse across the planet–with the associated mass starvation and disease epidemics that usually accompanies such processes–all you would have to do is wait a couple of years and the human population most likely would have been decreased by 90-95%. Then, you begin the clean-up action against a much less capable resistance–all of the human high-tech systems would most likely have broken down after a couple of years of lack of maintenance and most of the support infrastructure needed to make a modern military work would be completely degraded…

        If I can figure this out.. why can’t any aliens? Personally, a proper hostile alien invasion story would end with humans either being completely eradicated, with them living like rats on the fringes of the new alien colonies, or as specimens in the alien zoos…

        of course.. i guess that’s not really a good story for a feel-good hollywood summer blockbuster.. 😉

        1. Re: Hey..

          I just finished reading A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sci-fi film where the aliens are more like the humans in that story – they’ve arrived at our world after hundreds or thousands of years of cold-sleep. They are far more technically advanced than us, but they are millions of miles away from bacckup. Their only hope of returning is to bring earth up to alien standards of science and engineering – either through cooperation or by force. And they aren’t all united – there are factions among the aliens supporting both methods. Now THAT would make an interesting piece of space-opera.

        2. Re: Hey..

          I think that the main thrust of the movie is being ignored, though…

          The point was that we have *earned* the right to be here over eons of eons of evolution, and that alien species trying to advance to other places thay don’t belong will pay a hefty price for doing so.

          Applied to ourselves, the message is very anti-expansionist.

          1. Re: Hey..

            The great irony being, of course, that acccording to the movie’s plot the aliens were here long before we were, giving them more right to be here than we have. Of course, they just left their equipment and skedaddled, but that’s immaterial; they were the ones to plant their flag first.

            It’s like Spielberg actually sat down and thought “how can I excise almost all of the original story, but still manage to contradict the tiny bit of it that I left intact?”

          2. Re: Hey..

            heh, yeah…I forgot that point… (sheepish)

  3. Well, Tric, you do, of course, have a point.

    Any alien species capable of moving an invasion force here, en masse, can probably eradicate the native species. Hell, we’ve got the arsenal to destroy all the higher-order life on earth *now*, so there’s no reason to think aliens couldn’t do it.

    But those do end up being lousy movies. 😉

  4. I agree on the nonsense plot points, but heartily disagree with your assesment of Cruise and offspring being beyond empathy…they may have been extremely irritating to you personally, but broken families, immature Dads, and apathetic and antagonistic teens are the norm nowadays.

    1. I didn’t say they were unrealistic; I just don’t have any desire to look at them. I am, perhaps, too influenced by Heinlein; I want my protagonists to do more than just run and panic and get saved by blind luck.

      1. I guess i enjoyed the movie because I just decided to disengage and allow myself to experience the horror factor. I was genuinely moved in a true “horror” fashion like i haven’t been in ages by other movies that continually rely upon “gotcha” moments.

        1. There’s no question it was horrifying. There were some very visceral moments – the burning train has to be one of the most terrifying images I’ve ever seen in a movie. I guess I just never got to the suspension-of-disbelief stage, so instead of seeing people dying horribly and senselessly, I was seeing Hollywood making a movie about people dying horribly and senselessly for the entertainment of the masses – and that sickened me. I guess I’m just very old-fashioned in some ways. I can only really stand violence in movies where there is some justification for it – e.g. historical films about violence which really happened (even then it’s not always OK; “Titanic” used a real tragedy as a mere backdrop for some stupid love story). In movies where the violence IS the main attraction, like WotW or “Sin City”, I just find myself appalled.

  5. Good thing I wasn’t planning on seeing it anyway. I can’t stand Tom Cruise. Sounds like I’d want my money AND that two hours of my life back.

  6. I haven’t seen the 2005 movie, and it sounds like I never will.

    I have seen the 1952 movie, and heard the 1938 radio broadcast, and read the book. (Boy, that was a slog!) I am not impressed with the 1952 movie.

    When Wells wrote WotW, germ theory was fairly new, and I think that was the rabbit he pulled out of the hat to avoid the destruction of mankind. That rabbit doesn’t work in 2005, and would not have worked as a surprise in the first movie or the radio broadcast.

    Some have argued about religious overtones in the book, and in the first movie. (I’ll agree that there are in the first movie, mainly to support the US against the Red Scare.) I’ll have to re-read the book to look for overtones.

    Two thoughts:

    1) Movies tell us more about the period in which they were filmed than about the time period that they purport to present. Thus, “Titanic” is more about 1999 than 1912. And WotW-2005 is more about 2005 than, um, a fictional 2005, I guess. Or more about our current society that Wells’ vision in the late eighteenth century.

    2) Intelligent characters make for short movies. The “Friday the 13th” movies would last all of ten minutes if the characters simply said “Oh, this is bad. Let’s go home.”

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