War of the Worlds
directed by Steven Spielberg
(Paramount, 2005)

Independence Day was a good, solid, entertaining flick, so far as alien invasions go. But, compared to the new take on H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, ID4 is a bloody masterpiece.

How terrible is WotW? Let me count the ways.

Ray Ferrier, the central character, is a shallow man and a terrible father. He never earns my sympathy or interest, so I never care if he lives or dies. As Ferrier, Tom Cruise -- whom I've liked in several movies -- just can't pull this one off.

His children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), spend most of the movie acting terrified, although Robbie mixes in periods of sullen anger towards his dad. Rachel, on the other hand, is deservedly scared, not only because aliens are attacking the planet but also because her father can't be bothered to tell her what's going on. Yelling "shut up" at a frightened child doesn't help the situation.

Midway through the film, Ferrier makes a sacrifice no father should make. What was he thinking? Where was his heart?

An extended sequence with militant survivalist Ogilvy (an almost unrecognizeable Tim Robbins) goes on far too long, and it ends with an action that makes us wonder once again why we're bothering to cast Ferrier in the hero's role.

The special effects are, for all the $135-million budget, merely adequate. Where's the sense of otherworldly wonder? And they don't even make sense. Why would aliens who quite obviously feed on humans use deathrays that vaporize their prey? Why, for all their technical might, did they invade with weapons requiring them to hunt down and shoot each and every human individually?

A character who suffers certain death in the film is brought back, completely unscathed, at the end so we can leave feeling good about the plucky human ability to survive. It doesn't work, however; while the death was pretty pointless, the resurrection was a blatant cheat.

The Wells novel was, of course, published at a much earlier time in humanity's understanding -- and even perception -- of space. The infamous 1939 radio broadcast by Orson Welles played on paranoia of the time, relying almost entirely on the audience's ability to imagine the scene as it was aired. But the story doesn't work so well translated into the early 21st century; I would have preferred a period piece, setting the tale in the era either Wells or Welles intended, when lumbering, three-legged tripods o' doom would have been more believeable.

My wife and I left this movie feeling tense and annoyed. Unfortunately, we weren't unsettled by the terrifying portrayal of an alien attack on mankind; we were irritated by a flagrant example of bad parenting.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 9 July 2005

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