War of the Worlds

This was posted as a comment to the Internet Movie Database over a year ago, but I thought I’d put it here just to help keep what I write in one place, but also because I think Christians should observe, reflect and comment on art and culture, even pop culture.

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The difference between good fiction and mere entertainment is the development of the characters; they can not remain static; the development must flow from the story; and, in a movie (I can’t bring myself to call them ‘films’) the actor must be able to believably reveal and express the changes in the character.

Unlike in many action and science fiction movies, in which the special and visual effects reign supreme, all of the primary characters is this movie changed, and their transformation is what makes the movie good. Ray (Cruise) goes from child to man; Robbie (Chatwin) goes from rebel to warrior; and Rachel (Fanning) goes from one of those unrealistic overly competent kids the movies are always serving up, and which, in the case of Rachel, comes from being sheltered in a private school and affluent home to being, near the end, in an almost catatonic state of shock.

In contrast to all the reviewers who found her character annoying, I found it very refreshing. Rachel goes from an independent, miniature adult ordering health food delivery to being, gasp, a terrified, panicked and needy child. In the beginning, one could easily imagine Rachel raising her own father, but by the end the characters have both done a one-eighty, and there is not doubt who the adult is.

I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it, but Cruise was actually able to adeptly convey his character’s transformation and to express genuine emotion, besides anger. On the boat, Cruise was able to show how his view of his son had changed–from disapproval to profound pride–without uttering a word. With the exception of “Born on the Fourth of July,” Cruise is the definition of static character, until now.

There are a lot of continuity mistakes, but they rarely break the flow, and, besides, subtle continuity breaks often provide entertainment in otherwise dull movies. In addition, one does have to willfully suspend some disbelief, but it’s easy to do because it’s necessary for the story and character development.

For example, in the bridge screen between flight and victory, in the house with Ogilvy (Robbins), why did the aliens feel the need to spend so much time searching that house that they sent a probe, then three aliens, then, much later because Rachel sleeps and awakens, another probe? They’re out in a fairly rural area with a whole world to conquer. They don’t have infrared technology, either, apparently! Yet, this was necessary to slow things down, develop the horror of just what the aliens’ intentions were and to develop character, even if much of it was unlikely.

Likewise, the final resolution of the differences between Ray and Ogilvy was necessary to develop Ray and his newfound capacity for parental duty, even though the resolution (not to mention having Rachel sing) would have both been sources of greater noise, noise which Ray was desperate to stop, than Ogilvy’s mind-snapped chant.

This scene not only developed Ray, it proved Ogivy’s maxim. He tells Ray that as an ambulance driver he has learned that those who make it, those who don’t flat-line on the way to the hospital, are the ones “who keep their eyes open.” Ray learns from this, but Ogivy becomes the proverbial ostrich, literally burrowing into the ground, figuratively shutting his eyes in terror.

I don’t mind suspending disbelief with the cars on the freeway, all of which broke down on one side or the other, but never in the same place so as to block the highway, because Ray needed to flee. However, I do mind suspending disbelief when it has no value to the story or characters. Having the aliens bury their “tripods” here millions of years ago–a break with the original–is such an example.

If they were here millions of years ago why not just take over the planet then? Some may argue, based on what they were doing, that they needed a harvest, but there were plenty of animals around then, they could have raised humans, like in “The Matrix,” they were vaporizing millions of humans anyway, and, besides, it’s just too convenient that they managed to bury them under our major cities worldwide millions of years ago. It serves no purpose but to irritate.

Likewise, the birds landing on the “tripod” and demonstrating the force field is down, so the army could at least get one small victory, is annoying. The aliens were sick, not stupid.

This movie does not, as many reviewers in other countries have claimed, engage in American jingoism. America is as much a victim as other countries, and we don’t save the world. In fact, if Ogivy is correct, the Japanese seem to have been the only nation successful using human technology. Further, the only real political point is made by Ogivy, and I have little doubt Robbins himself insisted on it, when he said that history has taught us that “all occupations fail.” This is, no doubt, intended to bring Iraq to the forefront of the viewers’ minds.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the movie. I didn’t see it at the theater because I expected a mindless action flick with static characters, and I’m not a Cruise fan anyway, but it’s not. The characters drive the movie, and the action drives the characters. It’s Cruise’s best movie, and Spielberg’s best science fiction movie since “Jurassic Park.”

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