War of the Worlds (US - BD)
Gabe revisits one of of his favourite flawed Spielberg flicks on Blu-ray...
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a New Jersey dock worker, is about to spend a weekend with his children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), as his ex and her husband go to Boston for a family visit. After a few arguments and awkward situations disaster strikes, and malevolent aliens attack Earth with giant, tripod walking crafts and heat rays. Ray and the children begin a hard trip to Boston as the world comes crashing down around them.
War of the Worlds is an almost perfect feat of technical direction from the world’s best living technical director (clearly in my humble opinion), Steven Spielberg. The plot holes and the overly familiar nature of the source material are enough to ruin the film for some people, and I’m certainly not going to argue it’s some kind of ‘game changer’, but the engineering ingenuity behind the production is still exciting considering time and money allotted for the project. Spielberg really went above and beyond the call of the average multi-millionaire Hollywood film director in 2005. Two projects in one year is not rare for the director ( Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List, Amistad/The Lost World, Minority Report/Catch Me if You Can), but the speed of his 2005 productions, coupled with the fact that he directed a rather large Revenge of the Sith set piece, produced Memoirs of a Geisha and Legend of Zorro, and started pre-production on Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima with Clint Eastwood, makes for an impressive work ethic on any level. One would assume that the quality of War of the World’s and Munich would suffer, but the films remain some of the most interesting, if not all around great in Spielberg’s cannon, and compliment each other well in terms of subject matter and subtext.
The matter of ‘why’ remains key when critically addressing this particular film, but the final product did justify the energy in the end. War of the Worlds, as the paramount and primary alien invasion story, has been adapted so many times Spielberg’s interest was curiously questionable at the time, especially following blockbusters like Independence Day and Signs, but he and screenwriter David Koepp clearly had something in mind. Still, before release the film’s seemingly impossible prep time overshadowed most of my genuine interest in the quality of adaptation, and I assumed War of the Worlds would be a popcorn stopgap on the way to Munich, which was a more interesting ‘on paper’ project. Of course, being a hot-blooded American boy I was in the theater opening weekend, and quickly found myself entirely unconcerned with any aspect of the film’s production schedule. I was too busy internally shouting at the characters on the screen to run faster.
The first act of War of the Worlds is so close to perfect big Hollywood, B-movie popcorn bliss, I still find myself delighted by its utter efficiency. The characters (who are rather two-dimensional) are firmly developed in three or four scenes, so that Spielberg can quickly entrench his audience in palpable dread, all before releasing the first tripod, at which point most of the audience dumps their collective pants. Then there’s the highway scene, which may be the most impressive sequence of unnecessary exposition in film history. The second act is a drudge of nightmare imagery, specifically tuned to post-9/11 fears—crumbling buildings, crashed airplanes, screaming hordes, ashen faces, and missing persons pictures. The chaos is spiked with dozens of floating bodies, flaming trains, and downtrodden refugees, which leads into the too real terror of man turning on man. By the time we get to the big boat set piece every inch of the film is entrenched in danger, as if the very negative could cause grievous bodily harm.
The steam is let out of the bag during the turn of the third act, but upon additional viewings this movie-within-a-movie has won me over, and is the film’s most audacious move. Focusing the popcorn American public’s attention on 9/11 imagery is one thing, and Spielberg and Koepp were clearly inspired by the Red Scare and nuke era sci-fi (films like War of the Worlds, as a matter of fact), but taking twenty some minutes to quiet the whole production to focus on real human emotion is a major risk for a multi-million dollar homage to ‘50s monster movies. The bit where the machine eye looks for our heroes is a bit goofy, but just about every other part of the sequence steps above and beyond expectations. Unfortunately the sequence’s climax is more satisfying than the actual climax, which comes a half hour later. From here the production’s break neck pacing apparently caught up with the filmmakers, and though the technical aspects don’t particularly falter (Spielberg clearly has fun poking fun at his own Close Encounters of the Third Kind imagery), the story suffers, and the whole film turns into a standard, hero worship action flick. Ray going Luke Skywalker on the tripod is pretty lame after hours of screaming ‘Jesus Christ, run!’ at the screen, and the following scenes equate such an anti-climax it’s hard to remember what worked in the first place. Sure, Wells’ original novel uses the same basic climax, but germs were a pretty innovative concept in 1898—here it just seems like bad planning on the aliens’ part.
The basic story doesn’t work when you stop to think about it, but the acting and dialogue are marvels of hyper-realism. The actors mostly manage to convey the most natural reactions without excessive dialogue, grating hysterics, or unbelievable melodrama. The disc’s extras reveal a lot of rehearsal footage, and there seems to have been a real acceptance of improvisation. This sets War of the Worlds pretty far apart from stuff like Independence Day, and other films that represent a more traditional approach to the alien invasion formula. Of course we can’t discuss War of the Worlds without discussing the trouble with Robbie. Robbie is an irritating character, but he fills two purposes. First he fills the role of the angsty teen for the purposes of the family unit, but his allegorical role as the Americans that reacted to 9/11 with a confused, vengeful anger, is more interesting. The film’s final scene sort of matches the last act of Minority Report —it’s initially frustratingly sappy, and seemingly false, but is open to a much darker interpretation upon secondary viewings. Robbie’s survival is a cheat, and seemingly erases some of the film’s more personal tragedy, but there is also an alternate reading, in which Ray achieves reuniting his children with their family unit, only to be left an outsider again. I admit this reading takes a little more effort than an alternate reading probably should, but still like to assume Ray’s life was left empty once the post-invasion damage was cleaned up. Because I’m cynical.
Grain glorious grain. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski were going through a dark period by the time War of the Worlds. Save Catch Me if You Can, the Beard’s post Schindler’s List output has looked pretty grim, especially his two Tom Cruise flicks, Minority Report and this film. Minority Report was more monochromatic, specifically defined by high contrast blues, and bleach bypass blacks. War of the Worlds is very similar to Minority Report, but features more browns and reds in its overall pallet. The most consistently novel part of the look is the highly diffused background lights, which create haloes and lens flares around the harsh, deep blacks. This mix, along with the relatively excessive grain, leads to some muddied details in wider shots, but not as much edge-enhancement as was seen on the DVD release. The colourful hues are perhaps brighter than the theatrical release, if memory serves, but certain sequences with mixed hues, especially brighter bits of costume among dreary high contrast, look great in HD, and the separation of these elements is pretty surprising, based on the relative muddiness of the overall details.
Ka-freaking-boom. Due to the incredibly gritty look this uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio track is likely the driving reason for fans to get their hands on this Blu-ray release, and I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed. The excitement starts with the unnerving alien EMP lightning, which breaks the track’s focus on realism (save Cruise’s zooming car the pre-alien scenes are played mostly for aural subtly), and brings the stereo and surround channels to the audience’s attention. This is followed by the emergence of the first tripod, which proceeds to overwhelm every channel with every manner of expertly tweaked, and extremely loud noise. The rumble and destruction of the machine rising from the earth fills the natural grit void, then John William’s brass preps us for the mechanical war horn, the whirring engines, the otherworldly laser beams, and the bone crunching chase. Oh, and I almost forgot the off-screen plane crash, and the off-screen fire fight. There are a few minor issues with the sound quality of some of the dialogue, specifically when characters are yelling at each other over other, more pressing noises.
John Williams’ involvement in the film is a bit of a mindbender, considering that like Spielberg he worked on three of 2005’s biggest films (the same three, War of the Worlds, Munich and Revenge of the Sith). His score here is pretty terse compared to his other Spielberg alien movies, but less is more when mixed with the film’s bleak, documentary style. The moments that really count here are delightfully brassy, and feature a sort of ‘50s era pulse, which gives the LFE even more reason to throb. The end credit theme is the most traditional piece, and the best place to appreciate the track’s musical clarity.
War of the Worlds hits Blu-ray with all the DVD extras ported over, and nothing new thrown into the mix. It’s kind of disappointing, but the original release extras cover just about everything, so it’s hard to complain. ‘Revisiting the Invasion’ (07:30, SD) features behind the scenes footage mixed with on-set interviews with Spielberg, Cruise, Koepp, and producer Paula Wagner. Discussion mostly revolves around the film’s inception, which included finding an analogous reason to make the film (pretty obvious), and the avoidance of clichés, including the genre’s and Spielberg’s. ‘The H.G. Wells Legacy’ (06:30, SD) features a fun, brief discussion with Wells’ living grand and great-grandson, who delve into the author’s personal history, with focus on ‘War of the Worlds’ over his other impactful work. This section also tracks the story’s history through radio and film, and includes footage of Wells’ brood on set. ‘Steven Spielberg and the Original War of the Worlds’ (08:00, SD) continues the theme, featuring more behind the scenes footage, and more discussion with the director on inspiration, augmented with interview footage of the original film’s Gene Barry and Ann Robinson (who make cameo appearances in Spielberg’s version), along with costume designer Joanna Johnson, and special effects supervisor Dennis Muren. ‘Characters: The Family Unit’ (13:20, SD) is pretty fluffy thanks to Cruise’s seminar interview style, but is an interesting enough look at the casting, and the process actors, writer, director, and costume designer go through to create well rounded characters. ‘Pre-visualization’ (07:40, SD) takes a look at the process of creating moving computer animatics for the big special effects scenes during pre-production. Spielberg’s ‘storyboard’ drawing is a highlight.
The ‘Production Diaries’, which are the closest we get to a tradition making-of documentary, are broken into four parts. ‘East Coast—Beginning’ (22:30, SD) explores the incredibly speedy pre-production process, then principal New York/New Jersey photography and special effects, including visual style, locations, cinematography, subtle colour choices, production design, direction and practical effects work. ‘East Coast—Exile’ (19:40, SD) follows the same lines, but focuses on the ferry boat and army battle scenes. ‘West Coast—Destruction’ (27:30, SD) focuses on the cashed airplane set-piece, the basement scenes with Tim Robbins, pick-up stunts and set shot inserts. ‘West Coast—War’ (22:20, SD) covers the post-production process, mostly digital and practical effects, and the rest of the California filming schedule. ‘Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens’ (14:00, SD) features some really cool production illustrations, and covers both the technical and narrative background of the film’s villains. Things are completed with ‘Scoring War of the Worlds’ (15:00, SD), a look at John Williams’ music, ‘We Are Not Alone’ (03:10, SD), a sort of wrap-up of Spielberg and alien movies, costume design, production still, behind the scenes and production sketches galleries, and the teaser trailer.
I liked War of the Worlds so much upon seeing it the first time in theatres I made up a little back story with a friend to fill in some of the plot holes. My theory is as follows
(spoilers): The tripod aliens did, in fact, have ships planted beneath the Earth’s crust. They buried them after wiping out the dinosaurs. There were tentative plans to come back and colonize, but these were dropped when intelligence came back concerning the Earth’s bacteria counts. Centuries later some tripod alien Pentagon janitor found the battle plans, and got together with some of his redneck tripod alien friends. After borrowing their cousin Jared’s intergalactic cruiser they put the plan into motion, shouting ‘Get Some!’ at the top of their lungs every time they ‘ashed’ a human. Re-watch the scene where the aliens explore the basement—they’re total boobs. They’re drinking random dirty water and they’re shocked by a falling bicycle.
Anyway, Paramount has done a fine job with this Blu-ray release. The film’s intended look is grainy, dark and blown-out, so the 1080p transfer doesn’t exactly dwarf the original DVD release, but the image features more consistency, and more vibrant colours. The DTS-HD Master Audio track is more or less a must listen, and though there aren’t any new extras, the old news is still pretty impressive.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 1st June 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Revisiting the Invasion, The HG Wells Legacy, Steven Spielberg on the Original War of the Worlds, Characters: The Family Unit, Previsualization, Production Diaries, Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens, Scoring War of the Worlds, We Are Not Alone, Galleries, Teaser Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, Justin Chatwin
Genre: Action, Adventure, Horror, Sci-Fi and Thriller
Length: 116 minutes
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