Monday, June 27, 2005

War of the Worlds

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.


bagels, boobs, and beer said...

Just remember, I was next on Tom's list. If Katie Holmes had turned him down, he'd be jumping up and down on Oprah's couch about ME right now.

J.J. said...

"That Alanna -- she's an AMAAAZING woman."

maria said...

my mouth was open the entire time. this movie i think was brilliantly done. i went and saw it by myself at loew's on third avenue. the new york shots were killing me ... maybe it hit too close to home with 9/11 still being in the corner of people's minds.

the scene where he leaves his son on the hill and chases after rachel ... was the most heartwrenching thing ever.

i thought dakota fanning's performance was just stupendous. there is such innocence in her face. she was the "everykid."

i couldn't believe that robby had made it home to boston at the end.

all in all ... thank you for making sure that i saw this in the theatre ... without the surround sound and the magnitude of those tripods, i don't think i would have actually liked it.

J.J. said...

I couldn't believe Robby made it to Boston either. But if Tom and Dakota made it, why couldn't he? I have this theory that they're all dead at the end anyway, plunged into a kind of Bostonian purgatory. I also have a theory that Oprah was behind it all.