War of the Worlds – first thoughts

My full review will be posted tonight. But for now:

Effects: awe-inspiring

Sound: awe-inspiring

Cruise: impressive

Fanning: awe-inspiring

Robbins: like his Mystic River performance, only wackier

Tripods: truly terrifying

Urban chaos: chaotic to the point of exhausting

9/11 references and echoes: all over the place

Variations on Jurassic Park: everywhere

Political applications: critics looking for them will have a field day

Typical Spielberg broken-family-story: check

All in all, an exhausting ordeal of big city devastation with effects beyond HG Wells’s wildest dreams. A movie that travels the emotional territory of a nation still wrestling with 9/11, with questions of responding to violence with violence, with puzzles about occupying foreign territory, with questions about where to turn when the forces turning against us are beyond our comprehension.

But then, well…

Spectacularly dissatisfying conclusion: check

I’m sure many–probably most–will like this film far more than I did.

(But hey, ROGER EBERT is giving it the ol’ thumbs’ down!)

And to his credit, Spielberg avoids MANY of his characteristic errors. But I have no desire to see this again because I don’t find anything particularly interesting about it. I sat there thinking how much more troubling, and ultimately meaningful, Time of the Wolf was as a story of apocalypse-survival. Or Signs, even. (Oooh, I’m in trouble for that.) And frankly, after this first viewing, I find I actually prefer A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) for its more interesting (if similarly unsatisfying) storytelling.

I expect I’ll end up giving it a B, but I want to see if others find greater rhyme or reason or storytelling sophistication than I saw.

For what it’s worth, my friend Danny said he found himself slipping into the perspective of an 8-year-old being dazzled a big alien invasion, and on that level, he loved it so much he was cheering at the end. But I heard very few cheers.

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  • jasdye

    a supposed descendent of mary (the prostitute) magdelene with lustful features?

    why hasn’t anyone thought of this biblically-minded idea before?

  • Why

    I just glanced at the Star Wars home page and it didn’t say anything about Porkins but maybe I didn’t dig deep enough

  • Chris Durnwell

    I have never read Magdelena, but Top Cow Comics is best known for T&A comics. It’s gotten better recently, but not by much. I doubt any “spiritual” aspect transcends its inevitable big breats.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Inaccurate. In fact my earlier post deals with Spielberg’s dull, artless filmmaking method (at least in his films of the past decade) in general terms and aims no specific comments at War of the Worlds.

    Sorry, but I think you’re the inaccurate one here.

    I made the original structural comparison to the Book of Job before you posted anything to this thread, and I repeated it afterwards.

    And when you did “deal with Spielberg’s dull, artless filmmaking method,” you specifically said (and I quote): “It seems to me that Spielberg, Lucas, etc. use their big special effects budgets the way most sitcoms use laugh tracks–that is, to cover up the fact that there isn’t much substance to their stories (by substance I mean things like well-constructed plots and lifelike characters).”

    So I don’t think it is a misrepresentation of your position when I say: “Your posts presume that ‘story’ — by which most people mean mere ‘plot’ — is the primary purpose of this film, and that the special effects are just an add-on, but I am not yet convinced.”

    True, you may not have specified that plot is the primary purpose of this film, but you certainly seem to think that it should be — and like I say, I am not convinced.

    However, it is experience + context (that is, plot and people) that yields story.

    That is an interesting equation. And as with many approaches to film criticism, it may apply to some films, but not to all.

    Are you familiar with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics? He makes a very important argument about the distinction between “iconic” art and “realistic” art, and it has influenced how I see quite a few films; in many films, the characters can not and should not be too developed, because we need to be able to place ourselves in their shoes.

    In comic-book terms, think of Tintin — the character’s face is ultra-simple, not very detailed at all, and as a result we can identify with him subjectively and put ourselves in his shoes quite easily; his environments, on the other hand, are depicted in painstakingly realistic detail, and so we look at his settings more objectively.

    Now, in movie terms, think of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and how the film never really bothers to show what it is that makes the love affair between the two main characters work. Their love affair is not the point, and so it is not given too many details, which would only be a distraction; instead, it is the main character’s love-hate relationship with her Greek heritage that is the point, and so the film is filled with details about that; and we in the audience have the freedom to subjectively identify with the main character and to look at her environment more objectively.

    At the moment, I am inclined to see War of the Worlds in a similar light; the important thing is not how we objectively observe Tom Cruise and his family, but rather, the important thing is how those characters are sufficiently emptied so that we can subjectively imagine ourselves in their position and behold the horrors that their world is experiencing. Of course they need some detail, but they are more like conduits through which we experience the story than specimens that we study in a jar.

    But, as with all things film-related, my thoughts could change after a second viewing.

  • Adam Walter

    Irrelevant. The question is not whether the poetry is any good. The question is whether the poetry is the primary point of the text or merely slapped on to cover deficiencies in a text that was originally created for some other purpose. Your posts presume that “story” — by which most people mean mere “plot” — is the primary purpose of this film, and that the special effects are just an add-on, but I am not yet convinced.

    Inaccurate. In fact my earlier post deals with Spielberg’s dull, artless filmmaking method (at least in his films of the past decade) in general terms and aims no specific comments at War of the Worlds.

    At this point, I believe the film was meant to create (or, in view of the September 11 references, perhaps recreate) an experience, and in that light, I believe the plot, and even to some degree the characterization, is more of a secondary concern.

    I should hope that every film was an experience. However, it is experience + context (that is, plot and people) that yields story. Perhaps Spielberg and his ilk would be happy making big FX “experiences” entirely devoid of plot and character. Fine, I just don’t think they should be passed off as regular films–confine the gaudy spectacles to IMAX theaters where they belong.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    And some will say that the roots of these ideas actually go back to ancient Greece.

    I suppose. But the word “evolution” was itself coined by the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet (1720-1793), who lived and died long before Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859 — and I am told that he coined it within the context of trying to come to terms with the extinctions of entire species, which I don’t believe the Greeks had to deal with.

    The writer of Job uses poetry quite well and in a way that, say, your average Vogon does not.

    Irrelevant. The question is not whether the poetry is any good. The question is whether the poetry is the primary point of the text or merely slapped on to cover deficiencies in a text that was originally created for some other purpose. Your posts presume that “story” — by which most people mean mere “plot” — is the primary purpose of this film, and that the special effects are just an add-on, but I am not yet convinced.

    At this point, I believe the film was meant to create (or, in view of the September 11 references, perhaps recreate) an experience, and in that light, I believe the plot, and even to some degree the characterization, is more of a secondary concern.

    And to complain that the film uses effects to create this experience would seem as odd, to me, as complaining that the producers of a play hire actors to recite the lines.

    For me, the big question hanging over this film is whether we have achieved sufficient distance from the experience of September 11 to reflect on it, as art should encourage and enable us to do. I think we may still be too close to the event, and as a result, this film doesn’t offer much in the way of perspective; but I’d have to see it a second time before I could say for sure.

  • Adam Walter

    Strictly speaking, “evolution” existed as a theory for at least a century before Darwin — it was implicit in the fossil records.

    And some will say that the roots of these ideas actually go back to ancient Greece.

    Isn’t that a little like saying the Book of Job uses its poetry to cover up the fact that there’s not much story there?

    Not at all. The writer of Job uses poetry quite well and in a way that, say, your average Vogon does not. Now some films use special effects to enhance a substantial story (take Dark City, eXistenZ, or the original Matrix). This is in great contrast to the recent films of Spielberg and Lucas or something like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–this last of which used heavy doses of special effects to obscure Douglas Adams’ brilliant writing.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    I think to a degree people are more knowledgable about space and therefore are expecting a better rationale for alien invasions.

    True — wouldn’t it be neat if someone finally made an adaptation of this story that took place roughly a century ago, around the time the book was written? Kind of like how Peter Jackson’s King Kong takes place in the 1930s, just like the original?

    Personally, I can still imagine aliens wishing to seize Earth themselves, but assume it would be more economical for them to simply fling an asteroid at us to wipe us out dinosaur style.

    Ah, but then how would they feed on our blood?

    I wonder if the Native Americans of 500 years ago had similar assumptions about people advanced enough to cross the Atlantic?

    Indeed, some Natives welcomed the Europeans as though they were gods — a response not unlike how some people would welcome aliens, I think.

    And isn’t it true that the governing theory of modern secular humanism–Darwin’s theory of evolution–is one that depicts life in this universe as fundamentally aggressive?

    Strictly speaking, “evolution” existed as a theory for at least a century before Darwin — it was implicit in the fossil records. What Darwin did was introduce the concept of “natural selection” — which, as you say, is fundamentally aggressive. And this is the worldview that comes through in Wells’s novel and now in Spielberg’s film — humankind survives because it has been fundamentally aggressive in building up biological defenses against viruses, whereas the aliens have not. (And along the way, the viruses killed many of us, hence that line at the end of both book and film about “the toll of a billion deaths” and how humans neither live nor die in vain.)

    It seems to me that Spielberg, Lucas, etc. use their big special effects budgets the way most sitcoms use laugh tracks–that is, to cover up the fact that there isn’t much substance to their stories (by substance I mean things like well-constructed plots and lifelike characters).

    Isn’t that a little like saying the Book of Job uses its poetry to cover up the fact that there’s not much story there?

  • Adam Walter

    crimsonline wrote: “Ebert has stated many times that he doesn’t believe that any civilization advanced enough to cross the stars would be malevolent.”

    I respond: I wonder if the Native Americans of 500 years ago had similar assumptions about people advanced enough to cross the Atlantic? And isn’t it true that the governing theory of modern secular humanism–Darwin’s theory of evolution–is one that depicts life in this universe as fundamentally aggressive?

    Personally, I really wish that a filmmaker like Spielberg, who has pretty much conquered the entertainment industry, would make more benevolent use of cinema. Now, I’m not saying he hasn’t done anything worth seeing lately, but I’d be hard pressed to give an unqualified recommendation to anything he’s made in the past decade. It seems to me that Spielberg, Lucas, etc. use their big special effects budgets the way most sitcoms use laugh tracks–that is, to cover up the fact that there isn’t much substance to their stories (by substance I mean things like well-constructed plots and lifelike characters). Like the cheap laughs of a bad sitcom, I find the special effects in most recent Spielberg films very hollow; to me it seems he’s mainly interested in cheap spectacle.

    As an example, take the “morphing” of Matt Damon’s face at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Sorry, Stevie, but you can’t motivate sentiment with nifty special effects shots. When you try, you just end up with embarrassing kitsch.

    Here endeth my rant.

  • Chris Durnell

    I think to a degree people are more knowledgable about space and therefore are expecting a better rationale for alien invasions. Personally, I can still imagine aliens wishing to seize Earth themselves, but assume it would be more economical for them to simply fling an asteroid at us to wipe us out dinosaur style. The old WotW movie had a nice motivation – their planet was dying and they had no choice to come to Earth for their own survival.

  • jasdye

    If I properly recollect (long-shot), RE was practically assuming that the aliens were from Mars. It still made him upset that they were flying in from so far a distance (several million miles) to create such damage with no real purpose.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Well, Spielberg agrees with Ebert, but that isn’t the story he was trying to tell, is it?

    Hmmm, I wonder how Ebert would have responded to the film if the aliens had still been Martians — if they were from our own solar system, then they would not have had to “cross the stars”. Indeed, they would have travelled a shorter distance than some of our own rockets have flown.

  • crimsonline

    Ebert has stated many times that he doesn’t believe that any civilization advanced enough to cross the stars would be malevolent. I think he goes into Sci-Fi movies with that mindset, and has trouble breaking out of it.

    Then again, I haven’t seen WotW yet, so his critiques may be on target…

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Ah, well, I always thought Signs was pretty superficial in its treatment of faith, too.

    For one thing, it “cheats” in a way that, say, the Book of Job never does, by making the character’s suffering serve some sort of plot point, and by letting the character discover this before he recovers his faith in God.

    For another, it defines faith in purely personal terms and loses any interest in the broader social implications of the fact that Mel Gibson’s character is, like, a priest who is part of a community that has just been afflicted by the alien invasion.

    And that’s before we get to the fact that the film is extremely sloppy in purely science-fictional terms, which War of the Worlds, comparatively speaking, is not.

    Incidentally, speaking of the Book of Job, I guess one of the reasons I don’t have a problem with War of the Worlds‘s superficial ending is that I similarly don’t have a problem with the Book of Job’s superficial ending. It’s all the stuff between the set-up and the conclusion that matters.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Signs was relentlessly focused on one man’s crisis of faith. And I felt it dealt with that well.

    WotW is relentlessly focused on destruction, and deals so shallowly and superficially with Cruise’s “crisis of family” that the ending just isn’t enough to justify all that has come before it.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Surely Signs, which steals its ending from earlier versions of The War of the Worlds and if I’m not mistaken even references the film explicitly, had an ending that was at least as spectacularly disappointing as this film’s, if not more so…?