Christ, I am so predictable. Make a movie with aliens in it, and I'll go. Toss in some explosions and make it a big summer blockbuster, and I'll be talking about it for weeks ahead of time. And put Steven Spielberg behind the camera, and I'll start jumping around and counting the days to its release for months on end.
So of course I'm going to go apeshit for War of the Worlds. And all of the stuff I know Spielberg's capable of is in full force--jaw-dropping imagery, popcorn-spilling chills, an imagination as daring as his filmmaking is intuitive. War of the Worlds, on any number of levels, is pretty goddamn amazing. But on other levels, it's decidedly underwhelming--it's as if Spielberg & Co. decided to make a big movie about aliens invading, and left the cool-but-incomplete concept at that.
That said, War of the Worlds is a singularly unique film: It's unquestionably Spielbergian, but it also isn't clichéd. This isn't Independence Day's campy blowing up of famous monuments, nor is it the CGI-drenched space fantasy of Star Wars. This is the story of an invasion--alien or otherwise--told through the eyes of one family. Blue-collar deadbeat dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) takes his kids, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), for the weekend; between the normal familial squabbles and discontent, a pattern of resigned American malaise soon develops.
But then--and here's where Spielberg quits doing his Americana thing and threatens to knock this shit out of the park--a dark storm towers behind Ray's house, lighting silently flashing in its oddly spiraling clouds. Ray--filled with a dumb sort of amazement--calls Rachel out to the backyard for a look. Less than a minute later, they're cowering under the kitchen table, eyes wide and breath short.
That killer scene is representative of War of the World's singular strong point: It's a nearly non-stop barrage of incredible set pieces. The otherworldly, almost tangible imagery Spielberg creates--of buildings slowly cracking apart, brick by brick; of burned clothes drifting through tree branches in an otherwise serene night; of cars and earth hurtling through the air with a lethal weightlessness; of a sinuous, mechanical device so alien yet so organic that it has a menacing personality of its own--leave little doubt as to either his talent or intentions. He's a goddamn genius, and he wants to scare the shit out you.
And he does, largely because Spielberg's focus never leaves Ray and his children. It's a solid technique, even if it's unoriginal--M. Night Shyamalan did much the same thing with 2002's underrated Signs (also dealing with an alien invasion, also starring a batshit-crazy religious nut). There's an astonishing tracking shot, for example, that follows Ray and his children as they race down a freeway in a minivan--every other car on the road is dead and still, with confused, frightened people wandering the medians. The spectacle outside the minivan is stunning, but Spielberg's camera--swooping, tracking, spinning, catching the shot for minutes on end--focuses on the decaying countenances of those inside the car rather than the devastation around them. (A later sequence involving the minivan is also one of the film's strongest--though not because of Spielberg's eye, but rather a sense of smart, cruel, realistic cynicism. It's a welcome relief from Spielberg's past two films, The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can, both of which were beacons of inane cutesiness.)
Which makes it suck all the more that ultimately, the amazing set pieces of War of the Worlds add up to nothing. There's no resonance, no meaning, no reason, no core. As the end credits abruptly roll after a too-neat, too-simple conclusion, one's left with nary a sensation--sure, some kickass action was had, and yeah, some amazing sights were seen. But it's doubtful anyone will remember the film as a whole rather than just its parts.
It's a pity, because amongst all the action sequences and painterly spectacle, there's so much that feels rich in its symbolism and importance. Ray's first encounter with the invaders is at once fantastic and unnervingly reminiscent of 9/11's brutal imagery; the characters show moments of intense emotion--this goes, of course, for the disconcertingly talented Fanning, but also for Cruise (who, when he's not debating Ritalin with Matt Lauer or jumping on couches, is actually a pretty good actor); and a dark, protracted sequence in which Ray and Rachel find shelter in the basement of a crazed survivalist (a creepily manic Tim Robbins) ranks as one of Spielberg's very best: Artful, smart, and terrifying.
All of it's not for naught, but it's not for much, either. Despite all its power and imagination, War of the Worlds ends not with a stunning bang, but with an underwhelming whimper. It's a film that bears all the markings of a truly extraordinary filmmaker--and has all of the meaning and impact of a movie cranked out by anyone else.