War of the Worlds (2005)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Artistic Value: * *
Entertainment Value: * * ½

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When space aliens arrive on Earth by means of a lightening storm, the creatures unearth gigantic three-legged war machines they had buried millions of years before and set about liquidating mankind one person at a time. Upon seeing one such deadly engine rise up from an intersection in his neighborhood, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a New Jersey dock worker and the divorced father of two children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), rushes away from his home with his progeny and embarks upon a cross-county journey so that he can deliver them to their mother in Boston.

Steven Spielberg's science fiction extravaganza, War of the Worlds, is a dull, formulaic film that, while filled with countless absurd, campy elements, takes itself horribly seriously.

I will admit that the movie's special effects are technically impressive. The tripods in which the space monsters roam through cities and across the countryside hunting human beings are well realized and genuinely fun to watch. Whether the creatures are snatching up their victims with mechanical tentacles to drop them into baskets which hang from the underside of each of their vehicles, from which such unfortunates can later be plucked and eaten, or they are attacking hordes of fleeing people or armies of remarkably dimwitted soldiers, the aliens' activities are visually intriguing. However, as these sequences revolve around wholly uninteresting characters, they are never likely to affect the viewer in any real way. Sadly, these effects are virtually the only part of the movie that is even vaguely appealing.

In fact, the protagonists are so poorly delineated and stereotyped that they are never able to engage the viewer. Ray is thus a self-involved, childish individual who, in spite of his shortcomings, does his best to protect his children. Rachel is an emotional but always adorable little girl, and Robbie is a rebellious but ultimately decent young man. The moviegoer is almost certain to have encountered others exactly like these persons in innumerable other films.

Even the events in which they are embroiled are filled with a plethora of trite developments and amazing coincidences. When, for instance, the aliens cause all the electrical devices in Ray's city to malfunction, the hero just happens to know of the one vehicle that will still be working. How lucky. At another point, an airliner somehow crashes into the very house in which the protagonists are hiding, although without harming them or their car, around which the wreckage neatly falls. The scene showing the inevitable arrival of the hero at his ex-wife's house at the movie's conclusion, however, contains what is, perhaps, both its most contrived and most predictable occurrence. Although I will not reveal what this is, I will say that it is truly painful to watch.

What is more, War of the Worlds is absolutely packed with silly conceits that never work and sometimes even fail to make complete sense. While these could have been effectively employed in a more stylized or more self-aware film, in such a direly earnest work as this they just seem awkward. The moonmen, for instance, have apparently invaded the earth so that they can eat its inhabitants. This being the case, the viewer, upon hearing that they buried their tripods under the earth in the ancient past so that, at some point, they could use them to take over the planet, may wonder if the space monsters have waited so long to do so because, until men appeared, no animal had evolved that was sufficiently tasty to tempt them. Humans, he will surely conclude, must be absolutely delicious. Of course, if we taste so good, why do the aliens spend so much time reducing us to ashes with their death rays? Admittedly, however, as the slimy Martians do not even bother to check to see if there are microbes that could be harmful to them living on the Earth, or, at least, do not bother to follow any sort of decontamination procedures, it could be that they are just not very smart.

In addition to such nonsense, the movie includes several clichéd elements that can be found in countless other science fiction films. For example, the space creatures use some sort of energy weapon which, while fun to look at, is incredibly inefficient. If they wanted to kill humans, why not use conventional or nuclear explosives, biological or chemical weapons, or even machine guns? They would have eliminated far more of their enemies by doing so than they do by zapping them one at a time with their death rays. I should also note that, since Spielberg's monsters are relatively different from men, they prefer to wander around naked, in conformity with the general rule that the less an alien species appearing in a movie resembles humanity the less likely the members of that species are to wear clothing. Nevertheless, the poor creatures must have been terribly cold whenever they ventured out of their tripods.

Even with all its hackneyed elements, stereotyped characters, maudlin emotions, and contrived predicaments and resolutions, War of the Worlds could have been an enjoyable film. Other directors have used stylization to make overwrought or archaic elements work, as Kerry Conran has in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Still others have played with those clichés and made genuinely funny movies, as Tim Burton did in Mars Attacks!. Spielberg, however, is entirely serious throughout his awkwardly realistic film and has, consequently, excised from it any ability to move the viewer.

Absolutely overflowing with odd conceits, which could have been charming but which are, in fact, annoying, burdened with dull characters, and often genuinely tedious, War of the Worlds is not an impressive film. While some of its sillier elements do lend it a sort of pathetic appeal, more often than not it is just grating.

Review by Keith Allen

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