The War of the Worlds (2005)

This poster says it all, really, but I’ll elaborate.

My reviews so far have been pretty positive, as I don’t usually consume media I won’t like. But I regretfully admit that I have made the odd mistake, so it’s time to remove the gloves and sharpen my claws on H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, as butchered (sorry, retold in contemporary fashion) by Steven Spielberg. Aliens land. Aliens destroy, conquer and are then themselves destroyed by a twist of fate.

This is surely a story hard to ruin, especially with modern technical movie wizardry. Yet the movie has been shorn of its context. The British Empire at the time of writing (the late 1800s) was entirely different to modern-day America. The idea of the British Empire itself being colonised and its indigenous life all-but-obliterated by mighty invaders was deliciously ironic, but Spielberg’s version happily disregards this subtext in its relentless quest for Tom-Cruise-ification.

To  those who think I’m a hopeless purist and that Spielberg could add value to and even strengthen the story with a modern context, I say all right. For argument’s sake, ditch the historical setting. But my teeth aren’t all the way in yet, so bear with me.

Wells’ unnamed protagonist had no daughter as Tom Cruise does in the film. He was a scientific journalist separated from his wife. This separation provided its own narrative drive; his observations were sharpened by a sense of isolation. By ditching this dynamic and making him a father, Spielberg lost an opportunity to comment on isolation, and the gathering and processing of information in contemporary life. He relied on the much more predictable effect of the Independence Day-type format – imminent destruction of the main (usually male) character’s wife, kid, dog and so forth – to provide emotional texture.

As I’ve shown in a previous post, I’m the last person to cast aspersions on the lovably simple Independence Day. It’s just that I have this nagging feeling H. G. Wells never intended to be lovably simple. His understated, journalistic style was what made The War of the Worlds terrify audiences in Orson Welles’ radio-play version. People thought it was real. This sense of reality, his British restraint, if you like, was what made Wells famous.

Usually I love Spielberg for his action, family values, cute kids and alternately weepy and triumphant scores. But in this case he should have shown some Wellsian restraint. Arguably, a lot of viewers were going to be H. G. Wells fans and he owed that demographic as much as any other. If he was going to use the words “H. G. Wells” and “legacy” in the opening credits at all, he should have at least attempted to give that legacy what it deserves.

Gone was the chilling portrait of society’s typical hubris, its slowness to recognise the seriousness of the threat in time to save itself. Unused was the potential for electrifying cinematic use of the Red Weed. As a plot and visual device, the alien takeover of gardens, earth, buildings familiar to us all by an unknown red plant could have been both menacing and beautiful – uncanny, as Freud would have said. Instead it is used in a token, decidedly unspectacular way. Underdeveloped were the complex theories about the aliens, their landing methods, capabilities and the structure and function of their Heat Ray. Subtlety and detail was replaced by corpses floating down a river.

Normally I like corpses, but these were beside the point. In fact, the part where a few corpses might have been well-placed is cut. The road scene early on in the novel in which a mass exodus of panicked people trample each other in the effort to get out of town, showed the human race as a frightening and dangerous force in itself. It was poignant and scary, and not using it wasted another opportunity to nuance the story.

Little time seems to elapse in this movie, particularly before and after the violent bits, when the narrator is observing the cylinder and later hiding out in the abandoned house watching the aliens and going a bit mad. The novel used this sense of passing time to built tension and show how the aftermath to disaster is even worse than the high-octane horror in a way, because it lacks the hope of adrenaline.

Instead you are rushed through a simplistic, atmosphere-free tale in which everything’s fine, then f*cked, then finished… and I am monumentally disappointed.

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