Monday, June 29, 2015

Waging a War of the Worlds

"Don't you get it? We're under attack!"

Ray (Tom Cruise)

Steven Spielberg's movie version of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," which was in theaters 10 years ago today, wasn't a bad movie, but, as film critic Roger Ebert observed, it was disappointing — mainly because, on the surface at least, it seemed to have all the necessary elements to make a genuine summer blockbuster.

In hindsight, the 1953 version was better — even if it didn't have the benefit of 21st–century special effects (although it did pretty well with what it had, winning an Oscar — half a century later, the remake was nominated for Oscars for sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects but didn't win any).

I saw that 1953 version once many years ago; while its effects probably do seem primitive to modern viewers and it is often summarized as a "loose adaptation" of Wells' book, it was probably a better adaptation of that book than the film that was in the theaters in 2005.

I don't know why it turned out the way it did. Spielberg has always had something of a flair for stories with an other–worldly bent, but this one simply wasn't as satisfying as his other movies.

Ebert picked up on that, too. He called it "a big, clunky movie containing some sensational sights but lacking the zest and joyous energy we expect from Steven Spielberg. ... What happened to the sense of wonder Spielberg celebrated in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' and the dazzling imagination of 'Minority Report'?"

And I agree that it was clunky — mainly because it lacked that "zest and joyous energy" to which Ebert referred. That is really the secret to Spielberg's phenomenal success — and the key to understanding his failures. Oh, sure, he's pretty good with special effects, too, but that is because he makes them so realistic that, even if the premise of the movie is preposterous, the viewer really does believe it could happen. When that is done as well as Spielberg has tended to do it, that is the real magic of the movies.

With "War of the Worlds," though, I never crossed that threshold. I never believed that what I was seeing on the screen really could come to pass. It was an entertaining movie, but I never got swept into Spielberg's world — or, at least, the world he wanted us to occupy for a couple of hours. Unlike the vast majority of my experiences with Spielberg's movies, there was never a time while I was sitting in the theater watching "War of the Worlds" when I was not aware of the fact that I was watching a movie.

Now, I'm not going to say the movie was a total loss. It did have its redeeming qualities — even if it wasn't Spielberg's best.

It was a surprise to me that Tim Robbins had a role in the movie. I hadn't heard he was in it so it really caught me by surprise. He was almost unrecognizable as a survivalist at first — especially to eyes (like mine) that expected to see the young Tim Robbins of about 25 years earlier (as you can probably guess, it's been awhile since I went to movie theaters very much). Once I realized who I was seeing, I was able to concentrate on the story.

And I thought he was good. Not Oscar–worthy good, but good.

Even though the movie was probably in the theaters when Tom Cruise was still regarded as one of the most bankable names in Hollywood, I thought the real shining star of the movie was young Dakota Fanning, already a veteran of more than a dozen movies at the tender age of 11. The Las Vegas Film Critics Society gave her its Youth in Film award for her performance, and she was nominated for Best International Actress by the Irish Film & Television Academy — but lost to Gillian Anderson.

Personally, I don't think it was the best performance I've seen Fanning give. I thought she did well in the role of Cruise's daughter, but I was more impressed with her performance as Sean Penn's daughter in "I Am Sam" in 2001. She played a different kind of role in "War of the Worlds," though, one that seemed to confirm her all–around talent, and, I must admit, I expected big things from her after I saw it.

She's made about two dozen movies in the last decade, I suppose, which makes for a formidable body of work for a 21–year–old actress, and she has received a boatload of award nominations (and she has even won some of those awards), but she's never received an Oscar nomination. When she clears that hurdle, win or lose, I will feel she has lived up to her potential.

Ebert didn't have much to say about Fanning, except to lament "scenes in which [she] has to be lost or menaced, and then scenes in which she is found or saved, all with much desperate shouting." Mostly, he seemed to say, it was much ado about nothing.

Ebert didn't like the tripod invaders in a 21st–century setting. "I do not like the way they look," he wrote, "the way they are employed, the way they attack, the way they are vulnerable or the reasons they are here."

Fair enough. His beef really had little to do with the acting. His assessment — and mine as well — was that Cruise, as the hero, was tolerable in his role. After I had seen the movie, I really had no complaints about the acting, either, but I felt vaguely unsettled about what I had seen — an atypical response to a Spielberg movie.

Earlier in his review, Ebert wrote, "You look at Spielberg's machines, and you don't get much worked up, because you're seeing not alien menace but clumsy retro design. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to set the movie in 1898, at the time of Wells' novel, when the tripods represented a state–of–the–art alien invasion."

Food for thought for whoever chooses to make the next adaptation of Wells' tale.