War of the Worlds (2005)
When promoting The Birds prior to its 1963 release, Alfred Hitchcock had two simple words to share with his audience: "They're coming." The phrase was more than a marketing gimmick in fact, Hitch was encouraging a certain patience for the narrative buildup his film required, allowing audiences to do the very necessary business of investing in his leading characters before the arrival of the birds and their savage attack on Bodega Bay. It's not a small point, and it's one that Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005) overlooks. The fact that "they're coming" is a fait accompli for anyone who's even vaguely familiar with H.G. Wells' novel. Moreover, Spielberg's decision to not reveal just what "they" look like in the film's publicity push was a canny bit of Barnumesque hucksterism, ensuring that only folks buying tickets could gauge the hype for themselves. Thus, with such a tantalizing buildup, why does the alien invasion get underway a mere 15 minutes into the film? Tom Cruise stars in War of the Worlds as Ray Ferrier, a divorced father of two who's happiest when left alone, be it working as a crane operator on the New York waterfront, or simply rebuilding a V-8 engine in his kitchen. But he still has responsibilities, foremost among them visits from his young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin). Their latest arrival comes with the usual amount of familial tension, although their brief weekend together will be like no other a powerful electric storm develops over New York, sending a series of electromagnetic pulses into the earth. The EMPs leave New York City at a virtual standstill, but their result is far more horrific: Three-legged alien fighting machines emerge from deep underground, unleashing a war on mankind. Commandeering a minivan, Ray, Rachel and Robbie drive north towards Boston, hoping to find some kind of safety. But before long they discover that the war is worldwide, and that there's little hope the machines can be defeated.
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If War of the Worlds is meant to mark Steven Spielberg's return to his native turf the Big Show then it's difficult to fault. Following the semi-intellectual sci-fi of Minority Report and A.I., as well as the humanist Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan, this H.G. Wells update marks Spielberg's first foray into pulse-pounding summer action since 1997's The Lost World. Audiences voted to the tune of $234 million, making War of the Worlds a bona fide blockbuster in the midst of a box-office slump. And that's probably where the movie works best: on the big screen, during summer, amidst fistfuls of overpriced popcorn. There are new, horrific wonders to be found around every corner (a jetliner fallen from the sky, bodies silently floating down a river), and the mystery of the event is never diminished (Why were the machines buried underground? What is the red waste they leave behind?). Arriving from any other director, War of the Worlds would be a remarkable achievement, not only for the sheer scale of the event, but for its use of digital editing (a scene with the Ferrier trio in the minivan is shot both internally and externally, with no visible cuts). However, War of the Worlds does not match Steven Spielberg's finest efforts. Jaws succeeds not only because of the (mostly unseen) shark, but because so much time is spent with the three principal characters before they are placed in any real peril. Even the saccharine E.T. blends the domestic with the fantastic in a smooth, mannered pace. Here, machines "vast and cool and unsympathetic" upstage the film's A-list stars Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, reminding some of us that Paramount's 1953 version was marketed without any mention of the cast at all. And while nit-picking is best left to spoilsports, this is the kind of project where suspension of disbelief is de rigueur: The production team's commitment to recreating Wells' original tripods is laudable, but they were meant to terrorize late-Victorian England, not a contemporary United States with arguably superior jet aircraft and weaponry (the script deftly notes that the tripods have "shields"). Why would these machines attempt to destroy people with heat-rays, one by one, rather than unleashing more wholesale destruction? And why does such advanced technology use optical lenses to seek out humans in dark basements, but they aren't equipped with something as simple as a heat sensor? Perhaps these are questions that are more likely to come up with home viewing. Far less mutable is the inexplicable behavior of slacker teen Robbie, who wants to fight the invaders with suicidal abandon, or the fact that Dakota Fanning's incessant screaming as about as pleasant as a stuck car horn. War of the Worlds is a Big Show from a master but without the subtle, human moments that mark a masterpiece, we aren't allowed to wonder when "they're coming." As the movie poster states, "They're already here."
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DreamWorks' two-disc "Limited Edition" DVD release of War of the Worlds offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio options. Disc One includes the featurette "Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens," while supplements on Disc Two include in introduction from Steven Spielberg, the additional featurettes "The H. G. Wells Legacy," "Steven Spielberg and the Original War of the Worlds," "Characters: The Family Unit," four production diaries, a look at the score, production note, and a stills galleries. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.