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War of the Worlds (***)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, based on The War of the Worlds film script by Barré Lyndon and The War of the Worlds novel by H. G. Wells
War of the Worlds
Principal Cast
Tom Cruise -- Ray Ferrier
Dakota Fanning -- Rachel Ferrier
Justin Chatwin -- Robbie Ferrier
Tim Robbins -- Ogilvy
Miranda Otto -- Mary Ann
Rick Gonzalez -- Vincent
Yul Vazquez -- Julio
Lenny Venito -- Manny
David Alan Basche -- Tim
Ann Robinson -- Grandmother
Gene Barry -- Grandfather
Peter Gerety -- Ray's Boss
Morgan Freeman -- The Narrator (voice)
Ratings
Ratings are based on Rick's four star system.
One star - the commercials are more entertaining than the viewing.
Two stars - watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars - good solid entertainment.
Four stars - you never dreamed viewing could be this good.
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rick Norwood

War of the Worlds is a good action-adventure film with world-class special effects. It is not one of director Steven Spielberg's great films, but it is entertaining.

It owes as much to the 1953 film, The War of the Worlds, as it does to the H.G. Wells novel. The opening narration is adapted from the novel, but the closing narration is adapted from the film. There are significant omissions from Wells first paragraph. Wells writes that the Martians have "intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own". In other words, the Martians are not supernatural, but are creatures like us, subject to scientific law. They are smarter than we are, therefore they know more science, therefore are more powerful. Another key phrase in Wells' omitted by the film. "Terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise." What the Martians are about to do to the humans is not that different from what the British were doing to various native cultures, smug in their assumptions of superiority. And with the coming of the Martians "came the great disillusionment".

The Wells novel is about science and colonialism, the Spielberg film is about explosions and special effects.

The closing narration, adapted from the 1953 film, goes against everything H.G. Wells believed, attributing to "God, in his infinite wisdom" the downfall of the Martians. In the book, the phrase "God, in his infinite wisdom" is uttered, not at the end by an omniscient narrator, but at the moment the Martians begin dying, by a relieved character, speaking in character.

Most of the SF films from the 50s had some reference to God. For example, in This Island Earth, The Monitor says, "It is indeed typical that you Earth people refuse to believe in the superiority of any world but your own. Children looking into a magnifying glass, imagining the image you see is the image of your true size." Cal replies, "Our true size is the size of our God!" In the 1953 The War of the Worlds, the message is that mankind is No Damn Good, and deserves to be taken down a peg, but that God will look out for us in the end.

The special effects in the 1953 film were as good for their day as the splashier effects in the Spielberg film are for ours, especially the introduction, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell. You have to make allowance for the fact that it was only the third SF film in Technicolor, following Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide. The Spielberg film is full of visual quotations from it.

The 1953 script was by a writer with the unlikely but evidently real name of Barré Lyndon.

What is in the Wells novel, but not in any media adaptation, is respect for the value of intelligence. The Martians beat us because they are smarter than we are, and are finally defeated because they are not smart enough. This is a particularly timely message today, as the United States of America continues what one government report describes as our unilateral intellectual disarmament, and we read of court battles to replace science in our schools with religious dogma. Many Americans believe that God will watch out for us, no matter how badly or stupidly we behave. And this is the message of the Spielberg film, in so far as it has any message at all. Against all logic and reason, God snatches our fat from the fire, and everything turns out all right in the end.

Steven Spielberg does not seem to care very much about making sense. In the opening scene, the planet Earth brightens as day dawns, even though the Sun is still almost entirely behind it. The idea that the Martians have delayed their invasion for a million years is pointless. Martians are hungry. Why wait? The failure of electronic devices is inconsistent. Car solenoids are destroyed, but electronic cameras still work. It is absurd to think that cars stalled at random on a crowded freeway would leave room for one moving car to travel any distance. (I did like the way people explode while their clothes are unharmed -- sufficiently powerful microwaves would do that, because people are mostly water, and microwaves act on the resonant frequency of the angle between the two H's and the O.)

Spielberg stacks the deck. Tom Cruise (there's no point in pretending the hero is anybody else) is going to have to do something brutal to the man who takes him in and gives him shelter, and so the man pays "funny" attention to Cruise's daughter, providing an easy excuse. Contrast this with the famous scene in the M*A*S*H TV series, the one with the crying baby. And I groaned when Cruise just happened to find some hand grenades, knowing they would come in handy a few minutes later.

The best dramatization of The War of the Worlds is the musical audio version by Jeff Wayne, available from amazon.com. The sound made by the tripods in the film sounds like an audio quote from this great musical.

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Copyright © 2005 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.


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