Friday, May 20, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXIX: Vast and cool and unsympathetic


Spielberg tries his hand at the end of the world, and by dint of making his adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel in 2005, manages to go very far in capturing all the spectacle and the horror of it.  Yet although this War of the Worlds succeeds, on average, as a film that might well be retitled Scenes From the Martian Apocalypse, it also mishandles almost as much as it gets right.  Its undeniable triumphs thus stand next to its great and glaring ineptitudes.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp (based on the novel by H.G. Wells)
With Tom Cruise (Ray Ferrier), Dakota Fanning (Rachel Ferrier), Justin Chatwin (Robbie Ferrier), Miranda Otto (Mary Ann), Tim Robbins (Harlan Oglivy), and Morgan Freeman (The Narrator)

Spoiler alert: once again, they die of germs; but as for the original content, severe

It is widely held that the very worst thing about Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is its ending, which sees Ray Ferrier and his son Robbie reunited, about an hour after we saw Robbie run more-or-less face-first into a Martian heat-ray.

Well, the consensus is correct: it's a ruinous ending.  Oddly, however, it's drawn directly from the final chapters of the novel—its protagonist likewise reunites with his wife, learning that she has not been transmuted into ash along with the rest of southern England.  And yet Spielberg's WotW can't even bother to get the basic staging right, something that is much more important in a visual medium, like this film, than it ever was in a written medium, like Wells' novel.  Indeed, the last line of Wells' TWotW, in particular, is nearly as shattering as any emotional crescendo Spielberg ever managed; and it's therefore a serious curiosity just how the closing frames of Spielberg's film can be so similar, yet so inferior, all at once.

In any event, in the novel, the protagonist arrives at his long-abandoned Woking home, discovering that it is much as he left it; and it is, of course, empty.  It is not for a while that he turns at the sound of a voice—a voice that he, at first, does not even recognize—and realizes that his wife has come home, too, hoping to find him just as he has hoped to find her.

Well, in Spielberg's movie, Ray shows up at his ex-wife's parents' home in Boston, a place he had not the slightest good reason to journey to in the first place, but where these idiots have indeed just been fucking sitting there, apparently waiting for the Martians to exterminate them.  (For there are tripods only a few miles away, perhaps harmless now, but they surely weren't harmless an hour or two ago.)  Ray stares up at the door; and Robbie steps out, fine and dandy, in an over-the-shoulder shot that presages this film's rather desultory concluding "surprise."  Now, recall that Wells' protagonist lost his wife in a crowd, whereas Ray's son literally marched his dumb ass into the teeth of the Martian war machine.  And so this twist is garbage on a conceptual level, because this child has already perished; and this movie, about the cost of war and the meaning of loss, absolutely needs him to die in order to be satisfying.  But even leaving that aside, the scene is still bad, on the most fundamental cinematic terms.  Obviously, Spielberg has almost always preferred kind endings to cruel ones; but this ending is so hollow, its emotions handled with such a palpable carelessness, that it is almost the opposite of Spielbergian in tone.  It's like the director knew it would be at least kind of awful, regardless; and thus he simply translated David Koepp and Josh Friedman's script into a series of basically workable shots, then called it a day.

So, yes, it is the worst part of the movie.  But this bad ending is simply the logical extension of all the many bad scenes that came before it, and nearly all of WotW's bad scenes share one common element: Robbie Ferrier.  But, just to be clear, I don't place any special blame on Justin Chatwin, who simply plays his sullen teen as written.

Rather, Chatwin's actual performance is just run-of-the-mill bad, and not really worth remarking on.

So: War of the Worlds once again seeks to tell the story of the great Martian invasion—or, at least, the great alien invasion.  (In this regard the story has been updated by omission, and the script leaves out any clue as to the invaders' actual point of origin.  For convenience's sake, however, I shall strictly refer to Spielberg's evil E.T.'s as Martians, even though the only suggestion of the Red Planet in this film is that cheeky gesture in the prologue, a match-dissolve of the Earth against the crimson disc of a stop light.)

Well, after we have Morgan Freeman (rather unenthusiastically) describe the premise to us, we arrive at Ray, a stevedore in New York City, whom we soon discover is divorced and does not have full custody of his two children, Robbie and his younger daughter, Rachel.  This weekend, however, he gets the kids.  And thus the duo are dumped out at his shitty "working-class" home —though if Ray's home is shitty, it's solely because he does not clean it or stock it with food.  But we can understand why Robbie and Rachel aren't all that happy to be here, because whatever qualms I have about the kids, Ray really is an atrocious father.  His sole saving grace, I imagine, besides the intestinal fortitude he later demonstrates, is that I am simply constitutionally unable to find Tom Cruise unappealing.

We labor through the beats of their dysfunction, and then the plot kicks itself off, when a freakish lightning storm knocks out the power (and, indeed, renders all electric devices inoperable, because this film surely isn't above stealing any of the good ideas that found their way into George Pal's 1953 rendition of the tale).  Ray goes to investigate, and, down the road, he comes face-to-face with the End.  A Martian tripod erupts from the ground beneath him, and it massacres almost everyone he knows.  He lives—by sheerest luck—and he staggers home, where apparently no one heard the globe-shattering sound design that was being wrought by Richard King, et al, no more than three freaking blocks away.

Still, if you credit Spielberg with nothing else, at least he is keenly aware of the need for some awe-inspiring audio in any cinematic adaptation of Wells' novel.

The Ferriers flee, utilizing the one working car in NYC (are replacement solenoids stored in Faraday cages?).  They manage to evade immediate obliteration; but soon doomsday has caught up with them, and they fly from one near-run deadly confrontation with the Martians to another, witnessing the destruction of human civilization, surviving only by the narrowest margin.  Ultimately they lose Robbie, and at last Ray and Rachel wander into the clutches of a crazy survivalist named Harlan Ogilvy, a name that frankly suggests Koepp and Friedman only ever skimmed the book.

I've been negative so far, but then, the good of Spielbeg's WotW is not only hard to overstate—it's almost unnecessary to mention.  Unlike Pal's version of the story, this film has the technology and talent to pull off the scale of the Martian genocide; in 1965, Susan Sontag praised the ritzier SF films of the 1950s for their "sensuous elaboration," but from the standpoint of a viewer in 2016, those films are typically inadequate in many ways, sometimes charmingly, sometimes not.  Pal's TWotW is only marginally one of the former; but Spielberg's WotW, made in 2005, is neither.  It looks great (even though you can still see the seams in a few effects shots, if you're really, really looking for them, and the CGI Martians themselves are mediocre at best, poor and unfaithful in their design on top of being somewhat primitive in their animation).

Equally unlike Pal's version, however, Spielberg's WotW knows that Wells' memoir of the Martian War is best adapted as something experiential and raw.  And so, outside of Schindler's List and Amistad, which clearly don't count (even if they use similar cinematic language), it represents the first film since Temple of Doom where Spielberg found himself trafficking in abiding horror.  It is, of course, PG-13 horror, and this occasionally limits its effectiveness—only an R-rated adaptation could truly do Wells justice—but Spielberg pushes against these boundaries, and even circumvents them when he can, offering images of death as affecting as you could reasonably expect from this kind of four-quadrant apocalypse.  Further, and almost as importantly, Spielberg's film remembers that the advent of the Martians has made us animals again.  Where once we were kings, now we're either brutes struggling amongst ourselves—or we're livestock.  Or, in Spielberg's version, we're fertilizer.  And that might be even worse.

Now this is what I'm talking about!

There is a hugeness to Spielberg's WotW, and it is in this hugeness—this religious awe in the face of the tripods (and this time they are tripods)—that WotW fitfully makes its claim to being The Great Alien Invasion Film, a killer dark reflection of Close Encounters as well as an absolutely worthy companion to its source material.  Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is once again, in its way, quite ugly.  But it seems to fit this film like a blue-and-gray glove: after all, this time the whole narrative revolves around deadly glares of light.  (And credit where its due: the kaleidoscopic lightshows Kaminski offers, during Spielberg's many oblique battle sequences, represent not just one ballsy throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking; they're thrilling in their own right.)

Even the extended scene in Ogilvy's farmhouse still has much to recommend it, no matter how mishandled it is, both in Tim Robbins' distractingly-cartoonish performance, as well as in the absolute hash Spielberg makes there of the passage of time.  (Are they down there for two nights, or two weeks?)  Despite these weaknesses, Spielberg arguably does Wells one better, after his fashion: Ray must murder the dangerous madman with his own hands, in order to ensure his family's survival.  Meanwhile, Wells' protagonist, to save his skin, only ever puts a man in a position to die—but he doesn't commit the deed itself.  (Well, assuming we believe his narration, anyway, which we need not necessarily do.)

But then, I'm afraid, there is all the other stuff: like all that nearly-intolerable family drama.  Scenes are routinely hamstrung by Robbie's dunderheaded adolescence, notably his facially-insane desire to go help fight the Martians.  (Ray never explains to him the workings of modern high-tempo warfare, or asks him sarcastically if he knows how to maintain or operate an anti-tank weapon.  Though, of course, this is just one more sci-fi flick where the army deploys infantry with .50 cals and rifles to fight the rough equivalent of AT-AT Imperial walkers or Godzillas, rather than using stand-off weaponry, quickly realizing it just doesn't work, and subsequently husbanding their forces instead of sending their only trained soldiers off to pointlessly die.  Christ, movies, you know?)

Anyway, this is where the film most clearly departs from Wells—the enervating fractiousness of this family unit, representing Ray's genetic legacy, is in many respects the opposite of the abjectly Darwinian struggle that his novel depressingly contemplates.  The film thereby fluctuates between those sequences of thrilling atavistic survival, and those other scenes, of unbelievably tedious domestic trouble, and the latter leaves the more lasting impression.  It's just one more Spielbergian family experiencing the banal problems of ordinary life, solved by the imposition of broad fantasy elements that open their hearts but won't tear them out of their chests; and it is, I am certain, Spielberg's single worst effort in this regard, for such problems simply have no place here, at the end of all we know.  It is clear that a vastly superior movie would have had the guts to kill Robbie and make it stick.  An even better movie than that would've killed Robbie and Rachel.  And in the best of all possible worlds, it would've killed Ray.  Now that would have been shocking; and it stands to be said that these two kids are, in fact, much more bearable in their interactions with each other than they ever are with their dad.

Much, of course, has also been made of WotW as an allegory, and that allegory concerns itself with not just September 11th, but also the American invasion of Iraq.  It is, in its visual representation of a disaster and an occupation, almost totally effective.  It happily gets to have it both ways: America the Victim, and (taking its cues from Wells' Victorian satire) America the Oppressor.  But when WotW makes direct references to its historical milieu (or indirect references that, once decoded, simply make you want to barf all over your nearest friend), it stumbles upon its grotesquely swollen sense of self-importance.  The line, "Occupations always fail," is certainly awful enough—and it is just about the most Goddamned ignorant sentence that a pair of ethnic Europeans living in North America could possibly write (Wells never would have written it)—but did the tripods also have to be buried under the ground thousands of years ago, just so Spielberg could sneak in one more pointless little metaphor, this one about "sleeper cells"?

No, far better if Spielberg had begun his allegory, and ended it, with nothing more than Dakota Fanning's immortal shriek: "IS IT THE TERRORISTS?"  For she is allowed to make this connection—because she is like eight, and therefore she has the right to be that annoyingly obvious.

Score:  7/10

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