I went to see War of the Worlds today.
I really enjoyed it. The plot is ludicrous (but blame H G Wells for that), and Spielberg can’t resist making the ending just a shade happier than necessary, but it was genuinely grim at times – there’s a real apocalyptic feel to it. An obvious comparison would be Independence Day, where the wiping out of a large chunk of the human race is played for laughs – let’s blow up the White House! And Sydney Opera House! WotW, although it’s essentially a summer blockbuster, treats the destruction with an underlying seriousness. In fact, it occurs to me now – once the alien attacks get going, I don’t think there’s a single joke or comic moment. Which is genuinely unusual.
Lots of people have pointed out that it’s a post 9-11 movie, and there are some direct references – Cruise comes in after the intial attack covered in white dust, and we see boards covered in photos and names of missing people. But it also feels like Spielberg has drawn on the experience of making Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. It often feels, in other words, like a war movie as much as a horror movie.
Having said that – it is a movie that sets out to scare you. Spielberg still knows how to ratchet up the tension and make you jump. One thing I noticed was that the kind of threat kept changing. He uses different scenarios (a chase, a race against time, a mob scene, hiding behind the furniture to avoid the monster) so that he’s trying to scare you in different ways, and the enemy never gets overfamiliarised. The decision to keep the focus very narrowly on Cruise and his family is a good one, too. It makes the atmosphere claustrophobic and you never feel the hero has any control of the situation.
A classy piece of work, and a reminder of just how talented Spielberg is.