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Paul Greenwood

Published July 1st, 2005 | by Paul Greenwood

War of the Worlds Review

Classification: 12a Director: Steven Spielberg Rating: 4/5

A friend of mine has a young baby who could affectionately be classed as a screamer. Thus far, the only foolproof method of placating her is to turn on the soothing tones of the narrator from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. I’ll be advising him at the earliest opportunity that if he ever wants the child to sleep again, he should on no account consider Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds as a future companion piece for her. Because this is truly the stuff of nightmares, a primal horror of such ferocity that not even Richard Burton will be able to calm you down after it.

Freely adapted from the novel by H.G. Wells, for the first fifteen or so minutes it’s a domestic drama, as blue collar worker Ray Ferrier (Cruise) struggles with the task of looking after his two children (Fanning and Chatwin) for the weekend while his ex-wife (Otto) goes to Boston with her new husband. Ray is not a good father, as evidenced by his empty fridge and dubious methods of interacting with his kids. Fortunately for him, the end of the world intervenes and saves him from what could have been a really tough couple of days.

News reports have been telling of freak electrical storms around the globe, and when the lightning hits the Ferrier’s neighbourhood, what begins as a cool light show quickly turns into something infinitely more dangerous. As the streets crack apart and buildings crumble, the source of all this devastation reveal themselves from deep beneath the ground – giant mechanical tripods that begin disintegrating everyone and everything in sight. Barely managing to get out of town alive, Ray and his family flee cross country, desperately trying to evade their attackers’ constant onslaught while clinging to the slim hope of safety.

No one would have believed in the first years of the 21st century that two of cinema’s foremost exponents of summer entertainment would have come together again and fashioned something as unrelentingly grim as War of the Worlds. Merciless in its intensity, uncompromising in its brutality, this film will rock you to your core. This is not invasion, it’s apocalypse. The first scenes of alien rampage set the tone, as thousands of people are mown down without regard or pity, and the film continues in the same vein throughout, alternating scenes of massacre with blind hysteria and moments of quiet reflection and sorrow.

Spielberg throws in many a nod to his own back catalogue – the ‘raptor kitchen hunt from Jurassic Park is recreated as an unbearably tense game of alien hide and seek that embarrasses Shyamalan’s risible Signs. The handheld confusion and immediacy of Saving Private Ryan is recalled in the scenes of destruction that bring a new realism to CGI. Not that the special effects are the ultimate barometer of the quality of War of the Worlds but, as it happens, they’re simply astonishing. And yet Spielberg doesn’t draw attention to them, often preferring to use an eye popping event in the background to accentuate the human misery being played out in front of it.

The focus of this remains squarely on the Ferriers, with little or no indication given to events throughout the world. This puts a lot of pressure on the cast and they step up admirably. Tom Cruise remains an inexplicably underrated actor, and his work here is amongst his best ever. From his early scenes as a deadbeat weekend father, through his transformation into a reluctant hero, whether struggling to hold his emotions in check for the sake of the kids, or giving his all to protect them, he completely convinces. And what else is there to be said about the frighteningly talented moppet that is Dakota Fanning? In the last year alone she’s more than held her own against big Denzel and now wee Tom, not to mention carving a few slices off the honey roasted rump of De Niro.

War of the Worlds is a terrifying potential vision of our own self inflicted doomsday, masquerading as a summer blockbuster. And if, after an hour and three quarters of total carnage, the resolution seems a little on the easy side, I’m afraid there’s no one to blame for that but Mr. Wells.


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