Monday, August 15, 2005

But where's Richard Burton?

A (relatively rare, recently) trip to the flicks this weekend to see War of the Worlds.

I thought it was a tense, thoroughly enjoyable B-movie style shocker, but it pulled a few punches.

Spielberg chooses a claustrophobic approach, focusing entirely on the nightmare experience of Tom Cruise as he attempts to herd his frustratingly disobedient children to safety. In other words, aside from a brief prologue and epilogue lifted from the HG Wells book, and a few snatches of news reports, he refrains from taking the ‘world’ view of the War of the Worlds.

This commits him to a great family-in-peril thriller, but means that he doesn’t really capture the most powerful and shocking element of the original book: the narrator’s suddenly changed perception of man and his place in the universe: man is not master after all, he is just another pest waiting for extermination. Wells constantly reinforces this disturbing idea with comparisons between humanity’s attitude to insects or farm animals, and the Martians’ attitude to humanity.

Spielberg downplays this element of the story in favour of a different pessimistic idea: the non-heroic hero. Unlike most sci-fi battle stories, the main character does nothing much at all to defeat the enemy. He basically just runs the hell away for the duration of the film, and indeed, spends a good part of it trying to stop his son attempting to defeat the enemy.

In the course of his flight, Cruise steals a car, abandons some women, sacrifices his son in favour of his daughter and kills one of the few humans determined to fight back because he is making too much noise and might give away their hiding place (Tim Robbins, playing an amalgam of the Artilleryman and the Curate).

There are two great set pieces in the film. The second is the hijacking of Cruise’s car by an unruly mob: an uncomfortably believable depiction – shot in the breakneck, hand-held style of Saving Private Ryan – of a total breakdown of order and every-man-for-himself-ism.

The first great set piece is the initial glimpse of the Martian tripod, as it bursts from under the street and starts vaporising fleeing humans, leaving just their clothes floating ghost-like in the breeze.

Unfortunately, this scene is the only excuse I can come up with for Spielberg’s daftest and most unnecessary deviation from the book: it turns out that the Martians have buried these machines underground around the Earth millions of years ago, only to activate them now. Which begs the questions: why would they wait so long to take over the earth?; and how the devil, with all our mines, tunnels and sewer systems, have we failed to notice them before? The Martians in the book are clever, but not that clever, otherwise they wouldn’t be ignorant of the killer germs.

This gripe apart, it’s a pretty darn good film. I’d still like to see a faithful version of the story though, set in 1890s London, with plenty of ‘uuuulaaaaaas’ and soldiers charging in to fight the aliens with cannon and horses.

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