War of the Worlds (2005) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto
By Alan Bacchus
Lately we’ve finally started to see some of the Steven Spielberg pictures appear on Blu-Ray. Unfortunately it’s the later post 2000 films when his deal with Paramount had that particular studio working his Dreamworks home video releases. It’s been a fun looking back on these latter films, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report and now War of the Worlds. Each of these films seemed to look better upon first viewing than its subsequent screenings. Maybe it’s because Spielberg’s pictures work best on the big screen. Well, considering ALL films look better on the big screen than on television this isn’t a valid excuse.
Like Minority Report War of the Worlds works best as a series of set pieces with another another crack at reconciling Spielberg's own fractured childhood home life shoehorned in. It worked with Close Encounters and ET, but years later the domestic plotting feels unnatural and overwritten. Once upon a time this was Steven Spielberg’s greatest gift of filmmaking, other than his technical proclivity, his ability to pull naturalistic and warm performances. But over the past 15 years or so, the direction of his actors have become ice cold and stiff - every time someone opens their mouth we get dialogue written to be natural, but in that effort coming off as completely unnatural.
As for War of the Worlds, its best viewed as a technical exercise par excellence and none better than set piece #1. The magnificent build up to the invasion is expertly crafted. It’s a scene which has been done time and time again and most recently time and time again by that Spielberg wannabe hack Roland Emmerich. Under Spielberg's eye for spectacle these scenes are as tense and suspenseful as anything before it. Spielberg wonderfully foreshadows the destruction of the elevated freeway explosion which closes off the first act. The gigantic concrete structure dominates his frames in the opening scene teasing us as to how the structure will come into play (and be destroyed in magnificent fashion) later in the film.
There's a distinct feel for Spielberg's 70's, 80's films in here as well. This is due to Janusz Kaminsky's unique photograhy. It’s certainly one of his best looking films. Through some in camera or post-production process he achieves a wonderfully textured grainy look, a markedly different visual palette to today’s crisp and robust High Definition-shot films.
Spielberg’s reverence to the famed original George Pal version of War of the Worlds, a film which arguably set the bar for alien invasion films, and in my humble opinion, has yet to the surpassed. Admirably Spielberg exercises some restraint creatively and is more reverent to the HG Wells and Orson Welles version of the story than other filmmakers would be. Like the Welles radio program, Spielberg doesn’t expand the world beyond the perspective of these characters. We don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world other than news reports. Spielberg’s camera compliments this as well, using long takes with an expressive roaming camera putting the audience in the point of view of his characters.
And miraculously he keeps his film under two hours.
War of the Worlds disappoints because it’s not hard to imagine what this picture could have been if he directed it in the 70’s or 80’s. It has the look, but not the heart. The fact is, Steven Spielberg is rather tame now, no longer the fresh enthusiastic wunderkind of his youth. As an older married man with kids and maybe even grandkids, the folly of youth and his instinctual edge is long gone. Spielberg has even admitted, if he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind now, he wouldn’t have had Roy Neary leave his family for the aliens. Spielberg is also let down in these films by an aging John Williams, whose scores have become increasing indistinct and forgettable.
I think Mr. Spielberg is badly in need of a reboot. It wouldn’t be too hard. Here’s how to do it:
1) Ditch his awful screenwriting collaborator David Koepp and buy an awesome spec script from the Hollywood black list
2) Take a break from Janusz Kaminsky and hire Christopher Doyle or Harris Savides
3) Send John Williams into retirement and some other young composer looking for a break
4) Keep the running time to 90mins
'War of the Worlds' is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment