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War of the Worlds

Fresh from the carnage, I sit down, fingers in place, to type this review of Spielberg's "War of the Worlds." Then I stop. I cock my head. I listen... carefully. I strain to hear the odd foghorn-like sound that indicates approaching doom. Hearing none, and hearing no wind, seeing no flashes of thunder-less lightning, I can relax for a moment and concentrate on the task at hand.

I was worried when I first heard that Spielberg, the man who gave us E.T., was going to re-make War of the Worlds. I grew up on the George Pal, and the Orson Wells radio play which my father provided for my listening pleasure one summer in my late pre-teen years. I know the story well. I know the flow of it, the twists and turns of plot... I am a Wells fan of many years. I was concerned that he would molly-coddle it, perhaps make the aliens somehow sympathetic, in his normal overly-compassionate way.

All that worry was for naught.

Spielberg has delivered yet another film of moments, of images, of emotions, of impact. The last film of his that affected me so deeply was "Saving Private Ryan," although that was mainly due to the gritty realism and gore. Wait... that's what affected me so deeply about _this_ film too.

The film follows Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a working-class schlub who also happens, unfortunately for them, to be a absent, selfish, divorced dad who is far too interested in appearing like he cares for his kids than actually caring about or for them. He shirks work, he makes his kids wait for him when he gets home late, and is basically an unpleasant bachelor-type who should never be left alone supervising children of any age. His teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and pre-teen daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) are none-too-thrilled to be saying with dear 'ol dad for the weekend, and after establishing that such is the case, Ray goes to sleep, leaving the kids unsupervised for who knows how many hours. When he awakens and finds his son gone (with no driver's license and Ray's cherry black ford mustang), he runs outside to see if he can somehow figure out where son and car have gone. That's when things begin to go amazingly wrong, not just for Ray, but for the entire planet.

The rest of the film is one long survival chase, and unrelenting in its treatment of the subject matter. I say right here, if you have kids under 13, unless they're very mature and with it, this isn't the film to take them to. This movie pulls absolutely no punches with regards to the violence and gore (or unsettling lack thereof), nor the utter carnage such an event would wreak upon the peoples of the Earth.

Apart from a semi-lengthy cameo appearance by Tim Robbins about 90 minutes into the film, that's the cast (apart from momentary supporting players). Cruise, Chatwin, and Fanning carry the film, and with surprising acumen. There were a few times in the film when I was even able to forget that I was watching Tom Cruise, and actually accept the characters at screen-value, no mean feat for one who has been over-saturated with the "Cruise is acting SOOOO weird!"-media-frenzy. Fanning does a truly commendable job of the wide emotional range her character must embody, very impressive for so young an actress. Chatwin also delivers a noteworthy performance, but the angry teen doesn't get a lot of emotional range in an action/disaster/survival flick.

Here's where the movie stands out amongst all the films that have been made in the last twenty or thirty years: The special effects are _perfect_. Not once, not one time, did I see anything that said "Hey, look at me, I'm CGI!" The battle scenes impact the audience as though they were standing at the side of the lead characters, also watching. This is where the comparison to "Saving Private Ryan" is most apparent. The scenes of carnage, of violence, of utterly incomprehensible butchery, are so vivid and evocative, the audience was gasping. Several people yelped or yelled at times during the showing I attended. Add to that the fact that a very heavy rain squall broke over the theatre during the film, adding a quietly ominous roar to the scenes at the time, and this was another theatrical event worthy of mention and praise.

Thematically, for the first time I saw shades of other filmmakers in Spielberg's work. Several scenes felt reminiscent of Shyamalan's "Signs" and the aliens themselves looked like a cross between Roland Emmerich "Independence Day" creatures and James Cameron's "The Abyss" sea-crevice-dwellers. While the film flowed very well, following the "everyman" caught up in events far larger than he could hope comprehend, it also felt influenced. This is a first for a Spielberg film, and I think a good sign. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it's time that someone like Spielberg gave nods to other filmmakers who also produce entertaining and thought-provoking films.

As testimony to the impact of the film, I can actually comment on little else. The cinematography was amazing, but much of it was live-action/CGI-combos. I remember that there was music in the film, but if it was good or not I couldn't tell you. It did blend well into the narrative, so well in fact that it never intruded upon the story. Oh, and having Morgan Freeman narrate at the beginning and the end was enjoyable, although in the beginning he managed to make his voice actually sound menacing, something I'm not used to hearing from that particular actor.

All in all, I give "War of the Worlds" a solid A. While not for the little ones, if you're an adult (or at least think somewhat like one), and you enjoy getting taken for a long thrill ride, this is the film to see. Now I have to pause and listen again, to see if I hear that ominous foghorn-like sound that tells me my time on this planet is over. I hope I never hear it again.

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