War of the Worlds

Whenever I’ve been asked to list the books that have most influenced me as a writer, WAR OF THE WORLDS by HG WELLS is up there. I’ve always been fascinated by the impact Wells’s tale must have had on readers in the late nineteenth century, who’d never before come across the idea of Earth being invaded by creatures from another planet. It’s rightly regarded as a classic of the genre, but it’s a strange book because, in terms of action, it’s quite top-heavy. What I mean by that is, the most visceral and memorable scenes are to do with the initial arrival of the aliens and their first attacks. I’m sure if you’re reading this you already know how the original novel ends: the invaders are undone by bacteria. The story starts with a bang but ends with a cough.

This unusual structure has presented problems for many filmmakers over the years, because in retelling the story, it’s almost as if you’re working backwards from the climax. Many adaptations have been unsatisfying (the less said about the recent BBC adaptation, the better… what were they thinking?).

STEVEN SPIELBERG‘s version of WAR OF THE WORLDS was released in 2005. A new 4k Blu ray edition has just hit the shelves, and I thought now would be a good time to reappraise the movie. Having just watched it again for the first time in a decade or so, I think this is just about the best film adaptation of the novel there is (having grown up with JEFF WAYNE’s musical adaptation though – which terrified me and a whole generation of kids in the late seventies with its prog rock soundtrack and iconic artwork – I have to say that’s still my favourite adaptation of all; it shouldn’t work, but it does!).

Wouldn’t it be great if Steven Spielberg made a horror movie one day? I know, there’s JAWS, and maybe he did direct POLTERGEIST after all, and there’s kid friendly scares-a-plenty in RAIDERS and JURASSIC PARK, but to my mind he’s never made an out and out horror movie. This could have been that film, because Wells’s original novel is filled with plenty of terrifying scenes. And that, I think, is my major gripe with this film… it feels like chaos and devastation is perpetually about to be released, but Spielberg either holds back or (literally) looks the other way. That said, there’s plenty here to recommend.

I’ll say at the outset, I don’t like TOM CRUISE. I’m not a fan of major league movie stars as a rule (films can end up focusing on the actor more than the character, I think), but I really don’t like Cruise. My favourite film of his is LIVE-DIE-REPEAT/EDGE OF TOMORROW, and that’s probably only because you get to see him bite the bullet an almost endless number of times. But, despite my initial misgivings, I think he does a decent job here, along with other A-listers including TIM ROBBINS and MIRANDA OTTO. The Cruise family unit that gives the film its heart is well-formed, and the two kids (DAKOTA FANNING and JUSTIN CHATWIN) just about stay on the right side of annoying.

The real star of the show here, though, are the production design and the visual effects. There are some spectacular action scenes, most notably the first and last appearances of the alien tripods. Some of Spielberg’s regular collaborators – particularly composer JOHN WILLIAMS and editor MICHAEL KHAN – are on top form. Although some of the visuals and edits are quite jarring today (this film is 15 years old, don’t forget), there are some extended scenes which really pack a punch. The move from normality to absolute devastation in the first alien attack is a great example, as is the scene in which Cruise and his family escape the chaos in the only working vehicle and have to navigate an enormous jam of other vehicles that have stalled as a result of an initial alien EMP attack. Here, the camera flies in and out and around the car while it’s travelling at breakneck speed, and the effect is compulsive, drawing you into the unpredictability and volatility of the situation.

But it’s as a relatively straightforward adaptation of Wells’s novel that I think WAR OF THE WORLDS really succeeds. There’s enough of the book there, without Spielberg slavishly following every story beat. The beautiful striding alien tripods, their attack on the steamship THUNDERCHILD (represented by a ferry across the Hudson river in this version), the aliens feeding on humans, the crazy survivors who think they can survive by digging tunnels and living underground… the key aspects of the novel remain intact. Unfortunately, though, so does the ending. Having the aliens fall prey to bacteria might have been plausible in 1897 when the novel was first published, but it doesn’t wash today. Given how advanced these invaders clearly are, would they not have thought to check?

As I said at the start, all adaptations of WAR OF THE WORLDS suffer because the story starts big and ends small, but Spielberg’s version is hugely entertaining. It may fizzle out in the final scenes, but it’s a hell of a (rated PG) ride to get to that point. I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with the movie again and would definitely recommend the new 4k Blu ray release.

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