It's rarely an attractive sight when a lifelong good guy decides it's time to show everyone he can be bad. For most men, such crises of character involve the midlife acquisition of a motorcycle or sports car, though in some cases an electric guitar suffices. (The leather jacket and sunglasses are givens.) The metamorphosis can be particularly disturbing in filmmakers, who after all have more vivid ways of dramatizing their states of mind than mere automobiles and accoutrements. Ron Howard, for example, showed there was more to him (or perhaps less) than "Li'l Opie Cunningham" by directing the unpleasant 1996 kidnapping/revenge flick Ransom. This summer, the Big Daddy of good-guy American filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, made a proportionally larger statement with the alien genocide thriller War of the Worlds.
Just released on video, Spielberg's take on the classic H.G. Wells novel is an exceptionally grim one, drawing on anxieties both primeval (that harm might befall our children) and all-too-current (that another September 11 might take place, on a vastly larger scale). Spielberg knows our buttons and he presses them hard, with the fingers on both hands. There's little humor or joy or sense of adventure in War of the Worlds, just a lot of running and screaming and hiding and dying. The film plays as a kind of queasy hybrid, a serious take on a terribly unserious genre, E.T. re-envisioned as Schindler's List. There are magnificent moments along the way--Spielberg's cinematic eye is as sharp as ever--but ultimately the film is undone by its director's obsession with exploring his dark side.
In this iteration, the story of alien invasion is seen through the eyes of one frightened family. Divorced dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a New Jersey dockworker tasked by his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) with taking care of their two kids for the weekend while she and her new, more upscale husband visit family in Boston. Ray is not much of a father. His teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) loathes him; his ten-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) looks upon him with a mixture of bemusement and pity. But both get a chance to reassess their dad when, following a freak electrical storm, a 150-foot-tall squid-like alien "tripod" emerges from the ground and begins vaporizing everything in sight. (The extraterrestrial invaders apparently buried it there thousands of years ago on the assumption that, sooner or later, northern Jersey would have to go.)
Ray steals the only working vehicle in the neighborhood--an old wood-paneled minivan, natch--piles the kids in, and takes off. The family first flees to Mom's tony suburban enclave, as yet mercifully untouched by the alien attack. They don't stay there long though because a) Mom isn't there, having already departed for Boston; and b) during the night a 747 crashes into the house, rendering it decidedly less cozy. Ray and the kids hop back in the car and head north toward Boston, along the way encountering more tripods, hordes of angry, frightened refugees, and a basement-dwelling mental case played by Tim Robbins.
The film was inspired in part by September 11, and it is littered with references to that horrific day--the crashed airliner, the ash-like dust of disintegrated corpses (echoes, too, of Schindler), the bulletin board with names and photos of missing loved ones. The appropriation of these tragic images for a sci-fi blockbuster has more than a whiff of sleaze to it. If a filmmaker with a worse social reputation--say, Jerry Bruckheimer--had done this, he'd have been pilloried. Moreover, the nods to September 11 don't even fit Spielberg's story very comfortably. Why would a passenger plane be in the air so many hours after the aliens began their global genocide? How would refugees in mid-flight stop to set up bulletin boards? The scenes seem shoehorned in, cheap manipulations that make little logical sense.
The same is true of Spielberg's other provocations. Why, for example, does Ray seem to have the only functioning automobile on the Eastern Seaboard? The other cars in his neighborhood were knocked out by an electrical pulse that accompanied the tripod's emergence. But plenty of the places he and the kids go--Mom's house, for starters--haven't been hit by an electrical pulse. Why don't the cars there work? Perhaps because if they did, Spielberg would have no excuse for a scene in which an animalistic mob storms the minivan.
Late in the movie, Spielberg works in a vampiric twist--the aliens, it seems, have come to drink our blood. But if the aliens need blood, why do they spend so much time vaporizing helpless, fleeing civilians? Again, it seems Spielberg is simply tossing in every primal jolt that occurs to him, whether or not they're compatible. This way, he can shock the audience early in the film with the realization that the layer of ash covering Ray's face is people, and then shock us again later with an entire landscape soaked in blood.
Two horrible, agonized decisions that are forced upon Ray feel similarly contrived. Robbie has a desire (underdramatized and highly unconvincing) to join up with army troops fighting the invaders, and at one point his father has to physically pin him to the ground to keep him from leaving. But while Daddy is thus occupied, little Rachel is in danger of being abducted by a well-meaning couple who think she's all alone. The scene plays as a Sophie's Choice-style dilemma in which Ray must choose which child to save. But it's not. Rachel's only a few yards away from Ray and within earshot--a point that's made explicit by the fact that he can hear her hollering. All he really needs to do is shout at the Samaritans to get their paws off his little girl; instead, he releases his son and lets him charge into near-certain death.
Ray's second tragic choice is handled still more preposterously. He and Rachel hide in a basement with Robbins's character, Harlan Ogilvy, a working-class madman who endangers them all with his alternating bravado and terror. (Maybe it's just me, but I find it a bit annoying that liberal multimillionaire actor/director/playwright Tim Robbins has of late made a cottage industry out of playing mumbling blue-collar lunatics.) When Ogilvy's crazed shouting threatens to give away their hiding place, the obvious thing for Ray to do would be to smile comfortingly and wait for the first opportunity to whack him over the head. Instead he warns Ogilvy of his intentions--"Do you understand what I'm going to have to do?"--then goes to Rachel, carefully blindfolds her, and asks her to sing herself a lullaby. Only then, having alerted both his victim and his daughter to the impending violence does he return to "subdue" Ogilvy. It's a truly appalling scene, the worst of many ostentatious exploitations of the little girl's innocence.
The sad thing is that none of this gruesome overreach was necessary. The best scenes in the film--the emergence of the first tripod, an attack on a Hudson River ferry--earn their chills honestly, through masterful design and direction. The tripods are elegant and terrifying creations, far more expressive than the aliens who drive them. The sight of them cresting a hill at night, their central searchlights blazing like cycloptic eyes, is very close to pure cinema. If anything, Spielberg's shabby directorial manipulations--the 9/11 images, the contrived moral dilemmas--distract from the terrible majesty of these nightmare inventions.
Not to worry, though. Spielberg's dark appetites are sated before War of the Worlds is even over. The director is famous for his schmaltzy endings, but in this case the sunny gloss seems nothing short of parody. With ten minutes remaining in the film, the human race is doomed to extermination, without hope or plan. Then, in perhaps the most abrupt and unsatisfying deus ex machina ever committed to film (it's Wells's own familiar ending), the clouds part--literally--the danger is over, and the Ferrier family is reunited and whole. It somehow makes the entire film more distasteful. Spielberg has spent 100 minutes pummeling us with horror and tragedy, much of it seen through the eyes of a child, and then he thinks he can take it all back. Even a character who'd apparently died is miraculously revealed to be alive and well. (Several million other people presumably are not, but hey, they didn't have speaking roles.) The world is once again right and just, and Ray has earned the love and respect of his children. Spielberg is back to being the good guy. Except he's not, quite. He's shown us a bit too much, a streak of crass exploitation or moral triviality, that unlike the tripods won't just go away.
The Home Movies List: Tom's Happy Endings
Risky Business (1983). A classic case in which the studio wanted to finesse (i.e., replace) writer-director Paul Brickman's original, downbeat conclusion, in which Joel doesn't get into Princeton. Both endings were shot and tested, and you can guess which one audiences preferred. Despite the change, Brickman's dark, ironic undercurrents are still palpable.
Jerry Maguire (1996). Come on. We know Jerry's not capable of settling down, that the impulsive marriage was just that, that he's built for the sprint and not the marathon. He knows it. She knows it. Why doesn't Cameron Crowe (another director with a weakness for treacly conclusions) know it?
Minority Report (2002). Spielberg again. A clever little sci-fi thriller that falls apart utterly in its final act. Instead of fulfilling its destiny in the hotel room with Anderton, the pedophile, and the gun, the movie careens off its tracks, substituting a riotously idiotic conspiracy and trampling the fate-v.-free-choice theme it had developed. The last shot, of a little ocean-side cabin bathed in honeyed sunlight, is so ridiculous it almost seems a cry for help.
War of the Worlds (2005). Like Hurricane Katrina, the tripods seem to hit poor and working-class neighborhoods hardest. How else to explain Mom's real-estate good fortune both in the suburbs (at least prior to the airplane) and in Boston's Back Bay? With alien invasion, as with all else, the rule of thumb is apparently location, location, location.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.