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Review - War of the Worlds (Spielberg) (DVD-2005)
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War of the Worlds (DVD-2005)

Paramount Home Video

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

Before Steven Spielberg came on board, The War of the Worlds had already been made into a successful film in 1953, produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. That film, of a Martian invasion, crafted within a small budget, left an indelible impression upon viewers.

Many scenes in that earlier film are truly chilling and memorable such as the first encounter with the Martian war machines and a scene where a priest tries to make peace with the aliens, or the sound of the Martian weaponry, heard here. If the original The War of the Worlds reflected the Cold War tensions and religious slant of its time, it also is a film which holds up well today as an excellently crafted entertainment.

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds has the advantage of a much bigger budget and megastar Tom Cruise to help insure box-office success. Cruise gives an excellent performance but also serves as a bit of a detriment. Audiences watching War of the Worlds know that action star Tom Cruise is unlikely to die. The tense early scenes of alien attack in Spielberg’s film might have been even more intense with an unknown person in the starring role.

But terror is at the heart of Spielberg’s alien invasion and the film is terrifying. Using a unique, for Spielberg, directorial style, the viewer is constantly kept off guard. The cinematography is stark, beautiful, and striking. The production design is spectacular. The music score by John Williams is eerie, understated and masterfully conceived and executed. The sound design, particularly the ominous trumpeting chord produced by the giant alien machines, is completely unnerving. The sound effects are sometimes reminiscent of the Mother Ship in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but with a malevolent twist.

Rather than showing famous landmarks being destroyed (like Independence Day) or military strategies, Spielberg focuses on Tom Cruise’s character’s responsibility to protect his two children. This War of the Worlds is a harrowing tale of horror and human survival. So too, was the book, yet the novel had important philosophical content, religious discussion and rich societal metaphor that Spielberg sometimes omits.

Spielberg references his earlier films such as Close Encounters, ET and Jurassic Park and the dazed look of refugees fleeing the aliens evokes images of the camp survivors of Schindler’s List.

Certain scenes stand out. One concerns a surprise destructive assault on Cruise and his children in a suburban basement. Another, in homage to the 1953 film, takes place in a farmhouse cellar where an alien probe winds its way around nooks and crannies in search of human targets. Both scenes brim with suspense.

Other scenes seem hastily written or heavy handed. The motivations for Cruise’s son in the film in one sequence seems only designed to get him off-screen so the film can focus on other characters. A sequence involving red-weed alien vegetation is too vaguely explained to produce its intended effect, though it is visually beautiful.

And the set-up for the emergence of the alien war machines requires a stretch of the imagination—it’s scary but doesn’t make a lot of sense. Fortunately, misdirection is a director’s tool and the viewer may be too unnerved by the bravura filmmaking to notice.

Extras in the set primarily provide behind-the-scenes informative material as to the intent of the filmmakers and the execution of the film. That Steven Spielberg, after a long career and so many hits, can still pull this film off (filming the whole thing from start to finish in an unheard of seven months) and make it this gripping, is a testament to his brilliance and skills.

War of the Worlds, problems and all, is the work of a master filmmaker who uses all of his tricks and pulls out all the stops. It never fails to dazzle, and more often than not, it powerfully hits its mark.

2005 Dennis Kwiatkowski/ Celluloid Dreams

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