Okay, you’re gonna hear people complain about the last few minutes of War of the Worlds.
They have a point. Spielberg approaches bold nihilistic boundaries in this sci-fi thriller, only to stage a maddening last-minute retreat from the darkly wonderful mess he’s made of the world. Think of a bashful puppy trying desperately to look cute atop a couch it’s just shredded. This aesthetic misfire almost had me clawing the arms off my chair.
Don’t let the film’s final, misguided moments deter your enjoyment -- or rather, your astonishment. See this movie in the biggest, loudest theater you can find because its first 110 minutes provide a truly jaw-dropping cinematic shock to the system.
Based on a movie based on a radio play based on a famous novel (and isn’t there a short-lived syndicated 1980s TV series somewhere in there?), War of the Worlds shows what sci-fi does best. It reflects our present time through the funhouse mirror of genre trappings. 9/11 looms large. As does the final irony of an arrogant invading force expecting a cakewalk, only to discover its mission undermined by, shall we say, some unexpected homegrown rebel forces.
For all its mighty spectacle and terrifying tripods, the scariest thing about WotW is that this alien invasion literally makes no sense at all. The machinations of these invaders contradict themselves at every turn, and it’s clear from the outset that humans have absolutely no chance of figuring out how to fight back.
The aliens are here to vaporize us. No, wait, they want to harvest our blood. They want us dead. No, they want to capture us alive. They’ve been here all along. But they came from far away. They planned this millions of years ago. But they didn’t plan on a biosphere defending itself.
Every assumption these characters (and we) make abruptly curves back in a loop of mystifying logic. We’re not just confused, we’re logically disarmed and unprepared for everything that follows. By the time characters have time to ask these questions, it's already too damn late.
Now, a similar alien invasion saga, 1996’s Independence Day, didn’t make a lick of sense either, but that moronic monstrosity was the cinematic equivalent of braining yourself with a ball-peen hammer. Its hollow heroism was complemented by aliens who not only wasted zigawatts of energy needlessly suspending their spaceships above cities, but who mind-boggingly did so on OS 7 Macintosh computers.
But WotW is anything but stupid in its depiction of vast alien intellects who regard us as either vermin, fertilizer, or cocktail mix. The invaders’ plan doesn’t make sense to us. But Spielberg & Co. convince us through sheer horrific spectacle that it makes absolute sense to the aliens. They’re enacting a final solution whose full context is never provided, so vanquishing the enemy is never within reach. That’s notably horrifying, subversive, and most unexpected in a big-budget studio film.
I saw the movie with several people unfamiliar with any of the previous versions of the story (Wells, Welles, or Pal). While they praised the movie’s relentless tension, the story’s faithful Darwinian climax left them cold and unsatisfied.
Audiences expecting Cruise to kick ass and save the day are gonna be stunned. He has one explosive victory towards the end, but it’s painfully clear that his actions are saving one brief moment, not the day. Even at his most heroic, Cruise’s crude, self-centered character isn’t at all likable. (Which is one reason why that warm-and-fuzzy plot coda rings so false.)
It’s easily the most pessimistic sci-fi movie since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which posits a universe in which Mankind can only evolve under the guidance of alien powers. It's also one of the best big-budget sci-fi flicks we've seen in a long time. See this one at your megaplex. Trust me, the small screen won't do it justice.