If you like your movie experiences pure, don't read. Instead, go see War of the Worlds. If you don't mind, or are implacable, scroll down a bit.
War of the Worlds is the most amazing movie I've ever seen. Not the best. The most amazing. It is not perfection, but it is perfect in its consideration of its audience. Spielberg is a masterful entertainer, like Hitchcock was. He has created, using the most convincing and seamless visual effects I've ever seen, a movie of awesome scope and apocalyptic beauty.
Some will say it isn't deep enough or smart enough, that it lacks logic and explanation, that it's going only for cheap, digitized thrills. I say who the hell cares. The film ended, and I had to close my mouth, which had been open the whole time. I was at the mercy of the movie, and it felt great.
I saw it at Uptown, on the best and biggest screen in D.C. The audience was full, and rapt. Part of a great moviegoing experience is reveling in communal reaction, and War of the Worlds commands a kind of unity from the audience. It is, after all, about the end of the world, man against an otherworldly aggressor, survival in the face of destruction and extermination. It is also, as most good things are, about man against man.
Even if I wanted to go into specifics, I couldn't. There aren't any. The screenwriters (Josh Friedman & David Koepp) knew not to get in the way of the story, which was the ambush of Earth by an alien force. That's compelling enough by itself. There are no twists and turns or sudden revelations. Just Tom Cruise and his family fighting for their lives.
It's rare these days to be astonished by the virtuosity of a movie. Minority Report was the last time I was stunned by the graceful dovetail of a film's technical and narrative aspects. Spielberg outdoes himself here, though with a less complex and rewarding story.
Again, though, who cares? There is plenty to enjoy purely from a filmmaking perspective. Some sequences defy explanation. For example, as Cruise and his two children are fleeing a ravaged Jersey town, the camera circles the outside of the van they're driving. You wouldn't even notice it if you were caught up in the scene. But watch for it. Somehow, Spielberg has his camera circling the trio from outside of the van as they drive full speed. It moves effortlessly around, pausing, pivoting, tracking in and out, catching each angle of the heated conversation and making the scene electric.
Was it a green screen, or was Cruise really driving? Were some of those shots digital? Were the seams glossed over by computer trickery? I don't think so. Either way, it's a marvelous accomplishment. And it's by the far the least flashy trick in the movie.
There is a spellbinding scene on a ferry, where the alien tripods are advancing and people are flinging themselves onto the boat as it sets off. There is a cat-and-mouse sequence in the basement of a farmhouse, when an alien sensor is seconds away from discovering Cruise and company -- it's almost unbearable because of the suspense. Then there is an unexpected point when Cruise has to say goodbye to someone as the world around them is ending, and it's as dramatic and rending as anything I've seen. It ends as simply as it begins, with a bit of narration (by Morgan Freeman, who might be overemployed as a narrator). Regardless, the final line is perfect. It anchors the film.
People will quickly label War of the Worlds an amalgam of Spielberg's previous movies. It has the alien fascination of Close Encounters and ET, the emotionless predator presence of Jaws, the gritty technical vision of Minority Report, the relentlessness of Saving Private Ryan, the family drama of The Sugarland Express, the desperation to survive a holocaust that is the essence of Schindler's List. It has scenes that are informed by each of these movies, yet War of the Worlds feels like a vision all its own.
The vision is, I think, one man's imagining of limitless terror and wonder, and his daring to share it.