There’s nothing more annoying than a movie that looks to be destined for greatness only for it to fall down at the last hurdle thanks to a final last act that doesn’t quite seal the deal the way you hoped. A perfect example of this is James Cameron’s watery, sci-fi/thriller The Abyss, a movie that by all accounts fucking slays, but after an absurdly tense lions share of the runtime, the closing minutes kind of splutter out leaving you sitting there openly wondering “what the hell happened?”.
I’ll be honest, it doesn’t happen much, but when it does its incredibly confusing to me as a viewer; I mean does this now mean the entire film is a bust by association or do I just pretend that the final ten minutes or so simply never happened and go on with my life blissfully unaware?
It’s an internal war, is what it is; and so it’s fitting that this weird feeling steadily crept up on me while watching Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War Of The Worlds – a movie that pits the might of the Martian war machine against Tom Cruise’s shitty parenting.
Ray Ferrier is a swaggering, egotistical, divorced, estranged parent who drives a crane for a living, drives a cool car, can pitch a mean baseball and seems to have a rather sizable distain for anyone who isn’t him. Heading home to his house in New Jersey, it’s his turn to watch his kids for the weekend as his pregnant ex-wife his heading off to Boston to visit her folks and immediately things get off to a shaky start. 10 year old Rachel is a neurotic old soul who is a inquisitive as she is insular while teenage son Robbie desides to match his father’s smirking douche-ness with some good, old fashioned, adolescent moodiness – bottom line, matters are tense.
However, things are about to get a whole lot worse thanks to some freak lightning storms and some scattered bursts of EMP acting as an opening salvo of a full blown Martian invasion as giant, mechanical tripods rise from the ground and start reducing the people of New Jersey to big puffs of ash with some well placed death rays and Ferrier and his screaming brood are lucky to escape with their atoms intact. Making it to his ex-wife’s house only to find that they’ve already left, Ray realises he’s going to have to escort his kids all the way to Boston while an extinction level event is well under way and his trip proves to strain his limited parenting talents to the limit as the trio have to deal with everything from alien assaults, plane crashes and panicked crowds to a willful son and preteen panic attacks. But after holing up in a decrepit house with an increasingly deranged man named Harlan Ogilvy, the full extent of the Martian’s plan becomes apparent and we learn that they’re not exactly killing all of us – at least not yet…
With a production put into a stunningly quick turnaround and with a director who what deep into his “dark sci-fi blockbuster” phase (A.I. and Minority Report could hardly be described as laugh-a-minute…), there’s plenty wrong with War Of The Worlds to furrow the brow of anyone keeping an extra close look out for plot holes, but when Spielberg flexes those set-piece muscles, a lot of those problems managed to simply blow away in the wind.
Keeping the forward propulsion of a grim road movie, the filmmakers are far too preoccupied with Ray’s inner journey toward being a slightly less terrible parent and mounting some genuinely unnerving set pieces to care too much about the odd, duff green screen shot or the fact that it turns out that the Tripods have been buried on earth for thousands of years (why not invade thousands of years ago then?) and it moves from scene to scene with a steely eyed efficiency that seems to be exorcising the demons of 9/11 right before our very eyes. Now, if that sounds a little heavy for a summer blockbuster craft by the man that gave us E.T., remember, 2005 was the same summer George Lucas had Anakin Skywalker butchering younglings, so things where dark, ok? Thus we get a string of sobering images that not only spark all-too fresh memories of the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers (Ray staggers home from the initial assault glassy eyed and coated in white ash), but we also recieve starling scenes of death such as a mass of bodies floating down a river that wouldn’t look out of place in Schindler’s List.
Essentially what we have here is Independence Day with a sense of actual conscience merged with the fractured family dynamic of N. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and while the story requires more than a little bit of goodwill from the audience, the set pieces kick like a damn mile. Yes, the script relies on the group somehow being at every single important event during the invasion and yes, the sequence where Ray, Rachel and Harlan scurry around a basement to avoid a Martian probe (and then the Martians themselves) rings heavily of the kitchen scene from Jurassic Park and some might another dose of precocious, Spielbergian kids more annoying than not, but when the images are this good, does it really matter. A Tripod emerging through a city crosswalk only for us to witness it’s opening salvo through the screen of a dropped camcorder is only the first of many classic moments the auteur chooses to add to his already immense greatest hits list with a bunch of anxiety inducing vignettes. Think the initial attack is nerve wracking, try the haunting assault on a ferry as it crosses the Hudson River, or the moment where Ray attempts to silently wrestle a shotgun away from the mentally decaying Harlan in order to keep their location a secret – nail chewers one and all.
Tom Cruise, unsurprisingly, is front and centre for the entire film – in fact, I don’t think there’s a single scene where he’s not present – but when you need a lead actor to be ridiculously self-confident while holding himself as tense as a coiled spring, then there’s really no one better and it’s interesting to see that world famous, on-screen confidence played negatively for a change as events humble the crap out of him in order to go from a smirking man-child to someone who will literally do anything to keep his kids safe.
And it’s here where we run up against War Of The Worlds’ rather annoying ending where, after finally letting his son go on alone, possibly to his death earlier, Robbie somehow turns up safe and sound at his mother’s house at the end of the film looking exactly as he did when we left him. The moment where Ray has to concede that he literally can’t hold onto his growing son any longer and that he must let him go or lose both his kids is an incredibly important lesson the selfish father has to learn which then tempers his protective instincts greatly when protecting Rachel. The fact that Robbie’s perfectly ok may be a rare spot of sunshine in a relentlessly bleak movie, but it feels false and unearned and mixed with H.G. Wells’ poignant but admittedly anti-climactic ending (earth germs+aliens=dead aliens), it all but derails the tone of the entire movie literally in the dying seconds.
Undeniably flawed, War Of The Worlds is still a thrillingly brutal and harsh slice of summer blockbuster the likes of which is extraordinarily difficult to pull off – but Spielberg and Cruise very nearly manage it, only tripping over their own feet after apparently deciding a father saving only 50% of his children in an invasion that’s left hundreds of thousands dead, just isn’t good enough for a popcorn audience…