War of the Worlds (review)

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If the Tripods Came Today

Holy fuck.

Holy sweet baby Jesus in a rocketship to Mars.

This is one intensely terrifying film.

Paramount was right to keep images of the alien creatures and the alien ships tightly under wraps (though perhaps requiring Steven Spielberg to check his cell phone at the door of the New York premiere last week may have been a tad unnecessary), because when you finally see them, you’re sharing the experience with the characters in the film, and that is: Holy fuck. And you almost want to look away, it’s too much to deal with, and yet you can’t, it’s so horrifyingly fascinating.
The thing about Spielberg is, I think, not merely that he knows how to give us big WOW pictures of cool things that we all would love to see — like dinosaurs and spaceships — but that he has an instinct for finding imagery that is so viscerally profound that it makes you shiver with the realization of how insignificant you are on the grand scale of the universe. It’s like he replicates what must have been the sinking feeling in the gut of the first caveman who looked up into the sky and realized all those little shiny points were just suns really far away, and suddenly comprehended his own minute smallness, and went, Holy fuck. And then curled up in a fetal ball for a week.

And all of Spielberg’s movies are like that, are about pointing out how small and insignificant you are. Even Saving Private Ryan. Even Schindler’s List. Hell, even Duel. They’re all saying: You may think you’re hot shit, and you may even do everything you can to save the world, and you still can’t do enough to even make a dent (even if some other small, insignificant types appreciate what you did). They’re all saying: The universe always wins, pal. You can’t beat the house.

This new War of the Worlds Spielberg (Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report) has gifted us with is a fairly faithful updating of the classic Wells novel — if you know how the novel ends (or if you know how the 1953 film ends), then you know how the Martian invaders get beat by the house in the long run, too — but what it’s really about is how we have a whole new understanding of how small we are in the face of big horrifying things today. How 9/11 changed how we watch movies. This is a movie all about the dichotomy between “I can’t watch” and “I gotta see.”

There’s an opening shot of a World Trade Center-less Lower Manhattan, from across the harbor in New Jersey, as War opens, and then that’s all we see of New York. And it’s enough. The stage is set — this is the real world Spielberg is playing in. And then we’re with cocky Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise (Collateral, The Last Samurai), of course — but don’t let his recent offscreen antics scare you away: he’s got a jittery ruggedness here that suits him, that we haven’t seen from him in a long while (if ever), that fires him with an everyman terror that we oh-so sympathize with. He takes off with his kids — teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin: SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2, Taking Lives) and preteen Rachel (Dakota Fanning: Hide and Seek, Man on Fire) — after the Martian tripods start turning up and heat-raying everything in sight.

The first sequence of the arrival of the Martians is a wonder of contemporary, big-budget Hollywood filmmaking — it’s its own antithesis at the same time it’s a stunning example of it. It’s almost as if Spielberg himself can’t look straight at that first tripod — we see it head on in short bursts of glimpses, and then in reflections, through camcorder viewfinders, in mirrors. It cemented me to my seat and made me shake with horror: this is all about how we don’t want to see these kinds of nightmares and yet cannot look away from them.

And it is nightmarish in a way you cannot even begin to conceive before you see the film. The Martian heat ray pulverizes its victims, just boils them away to gray ash, which Ray gets covered with as he’s running from the scene (he went to see what was going on, because that’s what people do: they gotta see). He ends up looking like all those stunned people we saw on TV from Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, dazed and covered in gray ash made of things that you don’t even want to think about. It was gut-wrenching, and it’s gut-wrenching here.

Spielberg touches on images of 9/11 later — the bulletin boards full of “missing” and “have you seen my spouse/parent/child?” flyers — but perhaps the single most pitiful and disturbing image is an invention, and yet one that you recognize will be instantly iconic of the “Martian invasion of 2005” to the characters who survive this nightmare: raining clothing, scraps of fabric drifting down from the sky, all that’s left of the heat-ray victims. It’s absolutely chilling… and it’s absolutely credible.

There’s plenty else that’s downright terrifying here — the horrendous roar of the tripods is enough to drive you mad — but the feeling I’m left with after War of the Worlds is, ironically, that I want to see it again so I can not-see all that primally horrifying stuff once more. It’s an instinct I suspect we’re all getting used to these days, and Spielberg’s genius is that he knows how to tap that.

see also:
Ever-Changing Portents of Fear: Wells and Spielberg Versus the Martians, and Each Other [at The Internet Review of Science Fiction]

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