Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"What is it? Is it terrorists?"

"Trash." says my friend. "Absolute trash."

She was referring to Steven Spielberg's The War of the Worlds. Those may not have been her exact words, but the sentiment was the same. Given my feelings about Spielberg's recent track record, I was inclined to take her at her word, but her assessment still wasn't going to deter me from seeing the new War of the Worlds, trash or no. I had been waiting far too long for it. Ever since the triple whammy of my childhood of being exposed to, all within two years, the 1938 Orson Welles/ Howard Koch Mercury Theater adaptation, the George Pal movie, and H. G. Wells' novel, I had been aching to see a big-screen version with a budget. In part because I felt that Wells' book had yet to be committed to film, but mostly because I had tripods on the brain. Tripods, dammit! Tripods looming ominously over neighborhoods, tripods swiftly striding through cities, tripods unleashing deadly heat rays. Pal's 1953 movie, as well-made and as frightening as it is, is still something of a disappointment to me after all these years. The oh-so 50s theological overtones are bad enough, but the total absence of tripods is unforgivable. Wah Chang's manta ray machines are as eerie and menacing as all get out, but they're flying machines (really), and unless you're still uncomfortable with the idea of airplanes, they aren't liable to scare on that level alone. Early drafts of the screenplay did, indeed, include tripods, but even Pal's tripods missed the mark. Instead of Wells' seemingly living machines, Pal's tripods were to have three stiff legs with a spiked tank tread at the base of each, allowing it to grind over houses, cars, people, etc.. Chang's final designs were far less silly and, more importantly, were cheaper to build and film. But the lack of Wells-style Martian war machines leaves a serious gap. Any old foreign menace can buzz you with planes, but to really make you feel inferior, it takes extraterrestrials in titanic walking machines (as I always say).

Well, I have to say that Spielberg has completely sated my lust for tripods, and for that, I'm eternally grateful. For the first time on any screen, we have true Wells tripods; lifelike, inscrutable, purposeful, and just plain creepy. Spielberg's eye for composition presents us with scene after scene that could have been lifted from any one of a thousand illustrations for Wells' novel, and could easily serve as the same in the future. The tripods' heat rays are, in the tradition of the memorable "mason-neutralizing" beams of the Pal movie, appreciably alien and spectacular (although mystifying in their peculiar aversion to human clothing). Mr. Spielberg's tripods are masterpieces.

And, happily, I don't have to include a "but" here. The War of the Worlds is, while not nearly his best, one of Spielberg's better films. Wells' original evolutionary subtext is mostly intact (if shuffled somewhat to the side), but Spielberg treats the Mercury Theater and George Pal versions with similar reverence, infusing the strengths of those two contemporary revisions into his own; in part a tribute, but also a canny utilization of test-driven, sure-fire story elements. TWOTW has been something of a narrative nesting doll over the years with each new adaptation referencing and drawing off the strengths of previous versions. The Pal movie included multiple references to and plot points from Koch and Welles' innovative radio adaptation while similarly making the story as relevant to audiences in 1953 as the Mercury version had been in 1938 (Paramount even hoped to entice Orson Welles himself to appear in the trailers as a panicked TV reporter). So Spielberg has included references to all of it, most notably several lines and a few scenes cut whole cloth from Pal's film (not to mention cameos by Ann Robinson and Gene Barry). The bare-bones outline of H. G. Wells' story is here, the largest changes to the narrative having been made to allow for Spielberg's signature Cute Children In Danger and to increase relevance and believability, such as the references to terrorism and Cruise's son's military deathwish. The narrator's quest for his wife also takes on new significance as they're estranged. The story has undergone a certain amount of narrative streamlining as well. For once, we have no knowitall scientists around to explain who the invaders are, where they're from, and how their heat rays work. In their place, we have military grunts and thousands of average people in blind panic. Wells' Artilleryman and Curate are here combined into one character, Harlan Ogilvy, played with paranoid gusto by Tim Robbins, but the sequence nicely encapsulates the underlying themes of the novel's corresponding chapters (as well as some new ones in our post-9/11 world). The vampiric alien invaders, too, for the sake of believability are no longer Martians per se (Mission Mars will probably turn out to be one of the last films featuring an alien presence on the red planet), and the means of their arrival has been revised to give humanity even less of a chance to muster a defense than in previous adaptations.

Tom Cruise as jerkoff Ray Ferrier may not be the world's most likely blue collar shmoe, but he makes a very effective focal point, escaping death by the narrowest of margins time and again, making the death and destruction of the alien invasion a backdrop of sorts.. and it's all the more disturbing for it. Some critics (and my friend) find Ray's invulnerability risible but as unlikely as it may be, it happens, as the events of 9-11 have shown. Devlin and Emmerich memorably took the opposite approach in Independence Day, picking off their ensemble cast one by one in classic disaster movie style thereby putting the audience repeatedly in the place of the victims. But Spielberg, staying true to the novel, sticks with a central, and extremely lucky, narrator. For Spielberg and Wells, the true horror of TWOTW is the suspense of waiting for your luck to run out. But, sadly, that's also where the movie ends up stumbling badly. The conclusion, and I'm not talking about Wells' bacteria, is insulting and absurd, especially following the ruthlessness of the rest of the film. Even luck for the sake of narrative has its limits. Wells' narrator, although he is finally reunited with his wife, is a changed man by the end of the novel; his tidy Edwardian world view irreparably shattered. In Steven Spielberg's version, the ill-considered ending recasts the alien invasion as a kind of elaborate form of family counseling for the dysfunctional Ray and Co., and there is little indication that Ray's narrow perceptions of the world and his place in it have changed one whit (even Pal managed that one). In the ending, I smell the stench of test audiences and producers with weak knees.

But who cares. It's a Summer Blockbuster. I'm just grateful for those tripods.


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