War of the Worlds Redux

I'm almost disappointed that I didn't hate the new War of the Worlds remake. We tried to go to the eight o'clock showing Wednesday night but it was sold out. While we waited for the nine o'clock showing I came up with some really snarky opening lines like "Normally we at Quality Time don't advocate the home use of fireworks because they can result in blindness and deafness, but War of the Worlds is so bad..." Sadly we ended up liking the movie and all my creativity was wasted.

The best way to enjoy this movie is to decide in advance you aren't going to let little things like plot holes bother you. Remember how in Independence Day you had to pretend that it was likely that the alien ships were running a platform we could destroy with a computer virus from our machines? If you could live with that you can enjoy War of the Worlds. You won't stop and wonder why one video camera still runs after everything electrical has been fried by the alien forces. You won't wonder why if the aliens buried these machines under the ground a million years ago they didn't just stick around and claim the planet then. You won't wonder why nobody noticed the machines when they built the subways. You'll just think, oh yes, it happens that way because the script or the director said so. Then you can settle in and enjoy the intense creepiness and nerve-wracking suspense in store for you.

The movie starts off very slowly and it breaks a cardinal rule of storytelling. After the introduction, which is nearly word for word from H.G. Wells' classic book, we see Tom Cruise's character, Ray, at work where he excels in using machines to move big heavy metal things around. Naturally we expected that at some point Ray would leap into the driver's seat of an alien tripod and start charging around town, having fun with the long tentacles and fighting the other invaders but it never happened. What a disappointment! After this very pointless scene we see far too many minutes of Ray being a rotten father and not getting along with his kids. Finally, about a week later, we get some action and what looks like some expensive scenes.

The aliens come down to earth and start chasing people around and wrecking things. Ray must try to keep his family together and get the kids to their mother who is in another state. He doesn't just have to worry about the aliens, who are vaporizing people left and right, he has to worry about his ten-year-old daughter Rachel's fragile mental state. She appears to have some kind of anxiety disorder and starts screaming just when things get rough. He's trying to drive to a safer spot, in the only vehicle that survived the initial alien attack, and her panic is not helping him concentrate on his driving.

That particular scene is where the movie started to work for me. Up until that moment I had been wondering if the film was ever going to engage me but suddenly the characters came alive, the two-dimensional teenage son character became three-dimensional and I started to worry about how this family was going to survive. Whoever cast Dakota Fanning as the daughter deserves a casting award because this talented little girl makes the film. Her terror and her father's need to protect her, from the aliens, from the desperate people around her, and from the trauma of the war raging everywhere, is what drives this film.

The rest of the film is almost nonstop horror. Just when you think you are going to get a second to catch your breath some really well-made creature or machine will pop up and scare you into heart failure. The aliens look utterly real and deadly. The tripods are terrifying enough on their own but they don't stop there, they also come equipped with tentacles to grab you up and stabby things the better to kill you with. I found myself wondering if I would ever sleep again. John Williams' amazing score does a splendid job with tone. There are long stretches of the movie with no music at all, helping make the tension almost unendurable. When it starts back up again it is often discordant, jangling and scary in its own right. I know some people like to wait for a film to come out on DVD but you should go see this in the theatre with a bunch of other scared people, surrounded by sounds that are too close, watching a screen a little too big for comfort. Go ahead and immerse yourself in *suspense, it's well worth the ten bucks.

*Please do pay attention to the rating of PG-13 or "Frightening Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Disturbing Images" and don't bring young children. My 13 year old enjoyed it but if he were much younger I would have taken him out of the theater towards the beginning of the film. I am not one for arbitrary age requirements but I kind of felt bad for the eleven-year-old actress and hoped she didn't have to see everything we saw.