WAR OF THE WORLDS directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp from the novel by H.G. Wells, with Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins and Miranda Otto. 116 minutes. A Paramount release. For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
In Hollywood, there's a sixth: blockbustering.
This week, Steven Spielberg told Reuters what War Of The Worlds was about.
"It's certainly about Americans fleeing for their lives," he said, "being attacked for no reason, having no idea why they're being attacked and who's attacking them."
Clear enough. But one great thing about the film is that it's not just about Americans being attacked. It's also about Americans attacking.
War Of The Worlds is somehow both spectacular and supple, a big, paranoid freak-out that still surrenders to all kinds of interpretation.
Tom Cruise, who looks a lot less jittery than he has on TV lately, plays Ray Ferrier, a dockworker and deadbeat dad. He's just started his custody weekend neglecting his young daughter (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son (Canadian Justin Chatwin). But then the sky opens, and the earth, and pretty soon skyscraper-tall tripod machines are stalking the eastern seaboard, vaporizing cities and abusing humans with all manner of phallic and vaginal devices.
It's so cool. It's also completely implausible. The initial attack is prime popcorn-munching Spielberg stuff, but from there it descends into a thousand points of logical failure. How does a plane wreck somehow leave a clear path out just wide enough for a minivan? Why board a ferry that's clearly a death-trap? Who cast Tim Robbins?
Fans will no doubt spend years compiling their favourite plot holes, but for the rest of us, those lapses can lead you to buy out early. You're left amusing yourself with just the set-piece carnage and the allegorical bounty.
But Speilberg has made better set-pieces. Jurassic Park's raptor attack in the kitchen beats the long basement siege here. So does Minority Report's bathtub scene. The race to the mothership in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind beats the race from the spaceships here, at least for human drama if not expensive effects. And just about everything in Jaws trumps the fear factor in WOTW, because Spielberg made Jaws feel real.
So the mind wanders. Tripod machines with phallic, camera-eye protrusions - invasion by media? Long-buried creatures that erupt from below and wreak havoc - invasion by id? And are those helpless civilians seen fleeing a terrifying occupying force Americans, or Iraqis? As Robbins's character shrieks, "Occupations never work!"
In the end, though, the only theme that sticks is the power of family. Spielberg and his writers have body-snatched H.G. Wells's original text to push a familiar moral agenda. Every turn of the plot insists that family is the one sure source of strength and security. On this one level only, War Of The Worlds is a towering, efficient machine.
Resistance is futile. So 9/11 becomes a ruse, a throw-away reference. The cute trick of Hollywood's blockbuster effect is that it runs the stages of grief backwards. The story begins with acceptance of real-life trauma, then plunges into depression and climbs through bargaining to a climax of anger.
Then it ends, serenely, in denial.