The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

War Of The Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds is a one-note movie. And that note is a 30 Hz rumble tone. I have never had a film drive my big, bad subwoofer so hard for so long. For the first time since I have owned the thing, I heard it bottom out on a long cone excursion. That's a major push.

In my listening room with the DTS digital sound cranked up to "enjoyable" levels, the movie vibrated my internal organs quite noticeably and at times literally shook the house (Debbie, sewing in another room, confirmed this). This movie is the modern version of 1974's "Earthquake", where the gimmick was that they mounted big bass speakers on the floor in select theaters and announced the new effect: "Sensurround!"

So much for the fun part. The rest of the movie is sadly one-note as well. Alien machines kill humanity for an hour and a half while Tom Cruise runs from them with his two annoying children. The internal logic gaps are enough to make you cry, while the palpable sense of impersonality sucks any sense of concern out of you.

The story line is a remake of the 1953 classic "alien invasion" movie that served as a touchstone for science fiction action pics for many years. And of course they both derive from H.G. Wells' 1898 novel. The movie opens and closes with voice over narration largely taken from the 1953 movie (and a weird musical interpretation that was released on record featuring Richard Burton's silky tones as the narrator). It's an updating of the (now rather florid) language that Wells wrote in his story. Naturally, voice over duties now go to Morgan Freeman, who seems to have a rock-solid arrangement in Hollywood giving him first right of refusal on any voice over narration work (and he seldom refuses).

We are introduced to stock stereotyped characters in the first 15 minutes of over-familiar setup. Tom Cruise plays Ray, a self-absorbed lousy father with partial custody of his kids from an earlier marriage. Mom is pregnant and happily involved with a new great-guy boyfriend/husband(?), but still finds time to meddle disapprovingly around Ray's house and act like a martyr. Dakota Fanning is the precocious little girl who has taken on the role of serious practical one (she orders takeout hummus from the neighborhood natural foods store, because that's what most American 9-year-olds would naturally gravitate to by choice, right?). Justin Chatwin plays the surly and rebellious teenage son, who resents his dad's inattention.

Soon enough, though, things start rumbling and the aliens show up to wreak arbitrary havoc. Ray grabs his kids and attempts to avoid the aliens while journeying to find his ex. That's about it. Naturally, Ray will come to understand his children a bit more along the way. But mostly it's just lots of scenes of running away from alien death rays.

The key fault of the movie is that all the characters are unsympathetic and are passive participants in something that doesn't really involve them personally. Ray is made out to be something of a jerk from early on. His daughter turns out to be a screaming, whimpering, hyperventilating panicky kid -- but not in a way that makes her seem vulnerable and in need of protection. She is too calm, cool, and precocious for that, so that the screaming feels like a spoiled brat's tantrum. The son is an obnoxious teen with no common sense. And the aliens are arbitrary killing machines that sometimes hit and sometimes miss in their wide, sweeping attacks. You don't get the sense of personal menace and directed chase that made "The Terminator" so effectively suspenseful.

Spielberg must have realized this somewhere along the way, as he throws in a hide-in-the-cellar cat and mouse game with an alien probe and the family. The scene goes on WAY too long and defies logic, as the aliens have been covering massive amounts of ground and wiping out humans en masse and then suddenly take all kinds of time to stop and carry out an extended, detailed examination of an old farmhouse cellar. They also have some of the worst detection gear you can imagine on an incredibly sophisticated machine probe.

The film is shot in a strangely grainy and washed out style. Everything feels cold and lifeless, including the initial "normal" city life of the characters. John Williams' score reflects and contributes to the monotonous, repetitive feel of the movie. It never develops the sweep and grandeur of a typical Williams soundtrack piece.

I can't recommend this movie unless you have a serious sound system and want to impress friends and neighbors with a bass demonstration disk. I may have to pick up a copy for that purpose when they start showing up in discount bins at WalMart (which shouldn't take long).

Parents: The film is too intense and scary for young children. There is a lot of death (although nothing gory and gross is shown onscreen, it is strongly suggested). No serious swear words, no nudity, no sex, no drugs (one rock 'n roll reference though).

SPOILER ALERT!!! The following paragraphs refer to revealed developments in the story line...
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Here are my notes for those who have already seen the film:

1) I hoped against hope that they wouldn't have the son show up safe and sound at the end. Ridiculous, but I suppose it's inevitable for Spielberg. Is there a reason why the son is suddenly so loving and wants to call Ray "Dad?" Nothing magical happened between them. When last seen, the son was scrambling to get out of his father's angry clutches.

2) Grandpa and Grandma standing silently behind the mother in the Boston brownstone at the end are played by the original leads from the 1953 movie. That's why they have that stupid smirk on their face.

3) And while I'm thinking of them, does it seem strange that they are dressed and made up for an evening at the theater when supposedly there has been wild panic and destruction going on for days?

4) And while I'm still thinking of them, why the heck are people streaming INTO Boston from the outlying areas? Wouldn't the aliens (with "minds immeasurably superior to ours" who have been "studying us as we would study bacteria under a microscope") have picked the largest population centers for the bulk of their destruction? Why do they spend so much time stomping around the countryside, terrorizing small towns, and looking in creaky farmhouses?

5) These immeasurably superior beings with technology so advanced we can't even imagine it have been studying our planet and planning their attack for untold centuries (they must have buried their machines before our recorded history and waited for the total Earth population to get big enough to supply all the blood they would need). And in all that time they never conceived of the risk of bacterial infection? They didn't notice the plague, or smallpox, or other pandemics that have wiped out large portions of humanity from time to time?

6) Isn't it interesting how the electromagnetic pulses fry every electrical circuit for miles (even Ray's wristwatch stops working), but the locals are taking digital pictures and movies of the initial alien machine?

7) Didja notice how the soldier goes up to the alien hatchway at the end, lifts up the one limp alien arm sticking out, and immediately yells back "Clear!" to his buddies? That's some judge. We see in a moment that there is still a live alien inside when he yells that. And apparently he's never seen any movie where a person uses a dead comrade as a decoy and a lure to trick the enemy. What are they teaching these guys?

8) The much more interesting movie is what happens to humanity after this supposed "happy ending". There is human blood sprayed all over the place. Refugees have been scraped and scratched from all kinds of rubble. The spread of blood-borne pathogens (including HIV) should be rampant. There is massive destruction of infrastructure, transportation, and communications on an international scale. How are people going to eat, get supplies, get medical treatment? Massive planet-wide looting should begin almost immediately. There are dead bodies floating around in public water supplies, in collapsed buildings, and throughout the countryside and cities. Cholera, dysentery, and other contaminant spread diseases should wipe out huge numbers of additional survivors (where do you think refugees have been going to the bathroom on their long marches?) Specialists needed to repair all those fused electrical circuits are either dead, dealing with their own family survival, or stranded without effective transportation. And there is no transportation to get replacement parts to where they are needed. Getting any semblance of modern urban society running again should be interesting. And what are people going to use for commerce? They sure aren't going to process credit cards or withdraw money from ATM's. We have the makings of the finest post-apocalypse movie since "A Boy And His Dog" here.

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