War of the Worlds (2005)

17 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“War of the Worlds” is an updated version of the famous H.G. Wells story, and it’s by far the loudest and most tense version to come to the screen. Written by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park,” “Panic Room”) and directed by Steven Spielberg, “War of the Worlds” is mildly successful, but a pretty good time.

It’s a mediocre screenplay; I’m not going to lie. In fact, Koepp comes across better as a storyteller, and the story is well-paced and well-put-together. But it is merely an alien invasion thriller and we get the usual stuff we expect from this sort. (Although, there are a few nice little touches thrown in.) However, give Spielberg the job of directing this feature and you’ve got…a mediocre screenplay executed by a great director. But hey, it’s a nice attempt.

“War of the Worlds” is a summer blockbuster and you get the thrills and chills that come with the best feelings of such. The entire film is intense with underlying feelings of suspense, terror, and madness. The big action sequences are masterfully created with top-notch special effects and they just keep you on the edge of your seat. This is really the best way to watch “War of the Worlds”—see it on the big screen. It’s a great cinematic experience that the feelings of tension come with. (I was 13 years old when I first saw it in a cinema—it blew me away!) Even in the quiet moments, there’s still a good deal of tension because we know at any minute that something could go wrong and the heroes have to be one step ahead of it so they can survive.

The film centers around a divorced father named Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) who is left in charge of his two kids for the weekend by his ex-wife (Miranda Otto). The kids are rebellious, teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and accepting, younger Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Ray doesn’t have the best relationship with them—in fact, Robbie sort of hates him and always calls him “Ray” instead of “Dad.” Things are awkward and uncomfortable for them, and then things get even worse once the lightning storm hits.

It starts out somewhat peaceful, like a big light show in the sky with a big funnel cloud that doesn’t seem to be harmful. Ray even brings his daughter outside to “see something cool,” assuring her that it’s like the 4th of July. But then the lightning hits just a little closer and that’s when things start to get scary. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place,” he calmly assures Rachel. Well, it does today.

Like everyone else, Ray goes to town to see what has happened. And then, something rises up from the ground and brings death to all. Ray survives the attack and, expecting another very soon, packs up the kids and everything he has in his house to get the hell out of dodge.

When did Spielberg become so cynical about his alien figures? This is the man who has shown through movies like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that life “out there” can be full of hope and friendliness. But not here; not with “War of the Worlds.” These aliens in this movie are as ruthless as the shark in “Jaws.” They hunt, they feed, and they don’t stop.

These aliens leave a great amount of dread whenever you don’t see them. You just see their mechanical giant tripod death machines for the first hour or so, and you even see a probe searching all over for the heroes while they hide, and that somehow still keeps you on the edge of your seat. But once you see the actual aliens, the fear is gone. The aliens look the same as any other alien you see in any big-budget alien-invasion picture—they look like something the cat threw up, nothing like Spielberg’s original alien creatures.

There’s something I don’t understand, though. These aliens apparently want our blood—to exterminate and harvest us. But when they first arrive, they’re using heating rays to zap everyone on the streets to ashes. I don’t get it—why destroy what you want to eat later?

There are some great visual shots in the film—in particular, there’s one featuring a fast-moving train with each car on fire, another featuring dead bodies flowing along a river, and another in which Ray exits a house he hid inside during a bigger occurrence to find a crashed plane that has trashed the place. And the audio aspects of the picture make the film even more intense—the sound editing and mixing aid the visuals to create an intense, visceral experience. Listen to the tripods’ roar in surround sound—it’s genuinely frightening.

Tom Cruise has a physical presence that he has shown particularly in the “Mission: Impossible” movies, but I have to admire the fact that his main character of Ray is not an action hero. He’s a lousy, divorced father and a hard-time working man. When the aliens attack, he relies on his quick wit and thinking to keep his kids safe and stay alive himself. Cruise acquits himself nicely in the role. The two young actors are fine, although I tire of Dakota Fanning’s precociousness too easily. There are times when I wanted her to just shut up. There’s a suitably chilling performance by Tim Robbins as a survivalist who provides shelter for Ray and Rachel, and whose head may not be tightly screwed on. There’s a question of trust in his scenes.

The ending doesn’t quite work. It ends too quickly and without the right satisfying note. It’s a clever twist, mind you, but I would have liked to see a more compelling conclusion.

“War of the Worlds” is not about fighting the enemy. It’s about fighting to survive. Our heroes are not the typical heroes who man up and fight against the monstrous aliens (although near the end, Ray does get inside a tripod to save his daughter when she gets captured—but even that’s just selfless bravery and the end of Ray’s character arc). It’s cinematically dramatic and visually interesting. And though it has its flaws, I enjoyed “War of the Worlds” as an intense action picture.

One Response to “War of the Worlds (2005)”


  1. My Next Top 150 Favorite Movies | Smith's Verdict - June 28, 2018

    […] A lot of people don’t particularly care for this one, and I can understand why. The ending is too fair. Tim Robbins’ survivalist character is a bit of a distraction. And while Tom Cruise’s lousy-father character is a fine protagonist, his children, played by Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin, can be really annoying. But I can never forget seeing it at age 13 on a big screen in the summer of 2005. It blew me away and kept me on the edge of my seat, and when it was over, I was glad to step outside the theater and feel like everything was OK again. An effect of the magic of Spielberg (yes, another Spielberg movie makes the list). Yes, those things I mentioned are bothersome, but the effects are top-notch, the aliens pose a legitimate threat, the sound design is amazing, and I like that the alien-invasion is only seen from the perspective of one family (much like “Signs,” #38 in my Top 100). I’d love to see it again on a big screen with surround sound if ever I get a chance. Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2013/01/17/war-of-the-worlds-2005/ […]

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