War of the Worlds
It’s not that big of an irony that the greatest works in Science Fiction tend to examine best the human condition. Actually, it’s more like a rarely recognized truism for a genre that falls short of its full potential more often than not, but that hasn’t stopped Steven Spielberg from profiting in kind, and turning that voodoo he does so well into something tangible on the silver screen with War of the Worlds.
We’ve seen this before from the director. Actually, it almost became his trademark in the late eighties—take a family split apart by divorce, engulf them in extraordinary circumstances, and watch as the healing begins.
This uniting dynamic, plus a simple convention of going from point A to point B are all that’s involved with the plot. But a fittingly primal theme of mere survival is the real adrenaline juice that keeps this story moving along, and with good reason too. The creatures in this adaptation of H.G. Wells classic story are rendered true to form. That is to say they stand on three legs, walk over a foreboding horizon, and fire out death rays onto an unexpecting populace with blunt mercilessness.
As Ray Ferrier, a self-centered everyman who’s own teenage son thinks of as “a dick,” Tom Cruise steps up to the plate with shocking believability. (Well, maybe not so shocking given his recent statements.) Sure, we’re treated to some contractual scenes of him running down the middle of the street in a panic, but his acting hyper-drive is kept in reasonable gear. Plus, Dakota Fanning plays the part of his perilous daughter with such authenticity, it’s hard to imagine anyone playing opposite her would come off looking bad. She has “save me” written all over her.
Tim Robbins’ surprising and short-lived appearance tries to inject some social relevancy. But his character’s obsession with launching a counter-insurgency against the aliens because “history has told us a thousand times that occupations don’t work” is easily trumped by the impact of Cruise’s character’s decision to do what’s necessary for his daughter to live.
It’s difficult to explain without ruining too much, but the window of opportunity for making a sweeping statement about war is quickly closed.
And perhaps that’s all for the better. War of the Worlds may stay more pertinent and visceral by focusing on one man’s decisions in the heat of battle, not the decisions of the entire human species.
That’s probably not even how Wells himself imagined it, but it works pretty well for now.