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Judge Bryan Byun's Blog

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Blog Review: War of the Worlds (2005)
July 11th, 2005 10:21AM

There are so many things that War of the Worlds does right, that it depicts with awe-inspiring realism and scrupulous attention to detail. A nation is invaded by shadowy aliens with unfathomable motives. There are explosions, human beings incinerated instantaneously, by the thousands. Mass panic as people descend into chaos and terror. Clouds of ash that used to be friends and neighbors descending from the skies, as opportunistic newshounds record the carnage on camcorders. Walls covered with desperate pleas for help locating missing loved ones.

Spielberg brings this dark spectacle to the screen with his usual mastery. The only problem is, we've seen this all before: on September 11, 2001.

War of the Worlds wants to be the first big post-9/11 action-adventure movie, the first Hollywood blockbuster to explicitly reference the horrors of the disaster that has defined our times. Spielberg doesn't actually set his film in Manhattan, but the New Jersey location of the film (a cute nod to the infamous 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast) comes close enough. As dysfunctional dad Tom Cruise drives his dysfunctional kids away from the epicenter of the slaughter, his terrified young daughter yells, "Is it the terrorists?" That one line was, for me, the saddest cinematic moment I've seen all year. We've become a culture that has so internalized the terrorist threat that it has replaced Martians, Communists and Closet Monsters as our children's bogeymen. When Spielberg wants to do horror, he's the equal of Stephen King in being able to tap into the darkest pit of our collective fears. With Jaws it was the fear of sharks and deep water; with War of the Worlds it's the fear of being infiltrated and destroyed en masse in our own neighborhoods.

I don't have a problem with Spielberg tapping into that national anxiety. For many people, I'm sure the film is a cathartic experience. In some ways, it performs a service for adults that much children's literature and cinema does for kids -- helping them experience their deepest fears in a safe environment, with a hopeful resolution to let them know that everything will be OK. That's right, War of the Worlds is Bambi for kids 13 and up. It's a fairy tale. And that's fine with me, and it's why I'm not as bothered as some critics by the film's breathtaking lapses in logic and plausibility. If you wanted to get hyperanalytical about the film, you could argue that Spielberg deliberately undercuts the realism of his story with these plot holes, because the unvarnished truth would be too heartbreaking.

The War of the Worlds impressed me in just about every way that I'm supposed to be impressed by a megabudget commercial thriller. I was dutifully terrified during the invasion scenes, just as I was meant to be. But the whole thing left me cold. I couldn't connect to it in any personal or emotional way, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its many attempts to connect what was happening on screen with the recent history of the real world. I think what it boils down to is that the most powerful images in the film -- Tom Cruise covered in the ashes of his neighbors' bodies, clothes from vaporized humans floating down from the sky -- are cinematic analogues of images from 9/11, and Iraq, and Madrid, and London, that are still all too fresh in my mind. I can't help watching this film and comparing it to the reality. Which would all be fine if Spielberg had something to tell me about these horrors that would put them into some kind of perspective, and illuminate the fears it channels. But it doesn't. I leave the theater feeling, not elevated or enlightened, but pummelled and depressed. Maybe I'll see the film again in ten years and have a better appreciation for it, but at the moment it hits a little too close to home.


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