Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Tim provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Movie According to John:
Steven Spielberg's 2005 version of H.G. Wells's "War of the Worlds" generates the kind of mixed response you might expect from a director more concerned with telling his own story than the original author's. Spielberg's track record has been anything but consistent over the years, and his treatment of the Wells classic is no exception, perhaps showing the results of hurrying the project to screen too soon or perhaps of Spielberg's own sometimes odd priorities. In any case, I still enjoyed the film enough to have seen it twice on the big screen, then on DVD, and now on Blu-ray. It's not the film version of the book I was hoping for, but in its own right it works well enough most of the time to pass an entertaining couple of hours.
Let me touch on a few of the concerns I have, the main ones being the consistent attempt among Hollywood directors to try and improve upon classic stories. Spielberg is no exception. He obviously feels he can do justice to the narrative by changing it. I dunno why they do it.
First, there's the setting, the time period and place. Wells published his novel in 1898 and set it in the England of his day. Yet the major movie adaptations of his work place it in the context of more-modern times. Orson Welles (no relation) set his version in 1938 for the infamous radio broadcast; the 1953 movie with Gene Barry set things in 1953; and Spielberg sets his 2005 rendering in 2005, all three versions in America. In each case, I would rather have seen the story set in Wells's own London. Why? Well, it would have been more faithful to the book for one; I don't much care for contemporary updates of Shakespeare, either. And what does it serve to modernize things? When we look at the '53 production, it appears dated. In fifty more years, Spielberg's production will look dated, too. If the various adaptations had been making points about their contemporary society (as Wells's novel did, being a vaguely disguised attack on British colonialism), perhaps the updating would have made sense. But so far, we have gotten primarily action adventures. A period look would have been just as exciting, more authentic, and longer lasting. Who knows: Maybe it would have cost more, and money is always a consideration in Hollywood, even for a giant like Spielberg.
Then there are the coincidences. Do we really need another movie where there is always a parking space in front of the crowded downtown building where the hero needs to do business? In this case, Tom Cruise is able to navigate his car through a mass of stranded automobiles not just once but at least three times on three separate occasions. Each time, Spielberg perfectly situates every other car so as to make Cruise's intricate maneuvers possible, a likelihood about as astronomical as, well, as space aliens invading the Earth. And should I mention Cruise and Fanning's squeezing onto a ferry at the last minute, and then their miraculous escape from the overturned boat? Indeed, should I mention any of the main characters' miraculous escapes? As Tim says below, the first half of the movie stands up well, a serious, even profound, look at what might really happen if space aliens invaded the Earth. Then the adventure begins, and it's Indiana Jones time.
Next, we have the vines or roots or weeds or whatever they are that the aliens spread out around the planet. After four viewings of this film, I still have no clue what they are any more than I did many years ago when I read the book. Now, I know that those of you who have seen the film understand it perfectly well, and you will probably want to write in and explain things to me. Don't. My point is that if I couldn't figure it out, there must be other people who couldn't figure it out, either. And what's with the alien spacecrafts filled with blood? Wells had his Martians coming to Earth to drink our blood, true. But spaceships filled with it? Do the aliens need the roots to find us and suck out our essence? Are the weeds the remains of their mischief? Are the aliens planting new seeds for future generations? Are they upchucking our remains? Or did Spielberg merely like the look and Wellsian feeling of these blood vines?
Lastly (though I could go on), there are the melodramatic heroics near the end of the film. No, I didn't appreciate them, no matter what Tom Cruise's fan clubs expect. For most of the story I admired Cruise's character because he behaved semi-realistically. He was a jerk, to be sure, an egocentric, devil-may-care show-off and, as Tim describes him, a deadbeat father, who, when the invasion comes, only wants to save himself and his kids. Sounds like a normal reaction to me. He isn't out to save the world as we know it. And Cruise's character remains that way for much of the picture. Then, for reasons known only to Spielberg, the character gets all James Bond on us, and the picture gets silly.
Nonetheless, on average, the good outweighs the bad. As with most Spielberg films, family relationships are all-important, with the effects of the narrative's events on Cruise and his children as important as the events themselves; and several big scenes, like the first appearance of the alien war machines and an evening in a cellar with a demented Tim Robbins character, are awesome and creepy by turns.
Should I also point out that Morgan Freeman narrates the prologue and epilogue? Along with the film's accomplished production values and a first half that hangs together well enough to fascinate, entrance, and excite, Freeman's voice makes this "War of the Worlds" a moderate success. That and the fact that Spielberg retains Wells's original finish for the invaders and uses the 1953 version's stars, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, in cameos mean a lot.
John's film rating: 7/10
The Movie According To Tim:
With a slew of look-alikes movies over the past four or five decades, it's a wonder it took fifty-four years to remake H.G. Wells classic "War of the Worlds." Some might say it was accomplished with the film "Independence Day" less than ten years previous, but, sadly, the Emmerich movie is far too campy when compared to the expertise of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg gives us a version of space invasion that feels darker, chillier, and far more realistic than the multitude of other films about attempted alien dominations. Of course, there is Tim Burton's comedy version of "War of the Worlds" called "Mars Attacks," which is not a film that is even in the same ballpark as Spielberg's recent adaptation of the tale.
Nevertheless, this does not put Spielberg on the top of the heap of filmmakers who challenge this genre; rather, Spielberg just manages to give us a good piece of work to throw into the mix of alien invasion films. His film is occasionally marred with technical flaws, but he does manage, loosely, to follow the H.G. Wells classic, and, as expected, manages to take a few liberties in the storytelling. As far as comparing the new "War of the Worlds" to the old 1953 classic, Spielberg does tell it how it was when it comes to the alien's part of the story. Where he differs is how the aliens planned their attack; and in this film, we follow a father and two kids through a thrill ride of terror and mass annihilation of the human race.
Tom Cruise plays the role of a deadbeat father named Ray Ferrier. Unlike most roles for Cruise, in this one Spielberg decided to tone down the actor's macho persona and give him a character to play that is a little more down to the average Joe. His part generally works for the story, but he didn't seem to shine or stand out as I'm used to seeing Cruise do so often. Overall, it was a fair performance but nothing of the caliber I was expecting. However, his ten-year-old costar, Dakota Fanning, gives an amazing performance and practically steals the thunder from Cruise. Fanning plays the bright, headstrong little daughter, Rachel. Her reactions, expressions, and pure emotions are dead on throughout the entire film. Either this kid is that damn good or she has one hell of an acting coach. And if she is a flat-out natural, I think even Mr. Cruise could take a few tips from her.
The film wastes no time getting into the invasion and leaves little time for us to focus on the characters' deeper relationships. All we know is that Ray is a somewhat selfish, divorced father of two kids. Rachel is an adorable, well-adjusted daughter, and her brother, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), is your typical teenager with an attitude that would make James Dean cringe. As soon as we know this about the characters in the first ten minutes of the film, we are then immediately thrown into a whirlwind of terror and destruction that accelerates the film's pacing into overdrive. However, we are talking about a Spielberg movie, so he does manage to create certain dilemmas in the development of his characters as we see this small family implode, as well as bond, through the terrifying circumstances they undergo. It's the one thing I will give Spielberg credit for; he does manage to keep a strong focus on the characters through their emotions and expressions rather then banking all his dollars on high-tech special effects and sonic bliss. Granted, I like all that eye candy in a film, yet Spielberg crafts his skill well and manages not to bring us too close to our nemesis.
However, not getting too close did leave me with much in question about the invaders, but perhaps it was for the better. When you think about it, if we really were invaded by space aliens, do you think they would really communicate a clear answer to us as to why they were doing it? I mean, who would really know what they were up to, and it isn't as if we should expect them to speak our language. Of course, there is my usual question: If you're here to invade, then why annihilate? Why not turn us into slaves? I just can't understand the purpose of killing by a mass group of beings obviously with a higher intelligence than our own. However, it's really not Spielberg's fault as the film is based on the H.G. Wells story. Nevertheless, it shouldn't give the director a clear case of passing the buck when he is perfectly capable of taking a few liberties of his own in the story, as he did. Perhaps he should have considered stretching those liberties a little further.
For the most part, "War of the Worlds" is a good film and should hold up strongly in this genre, but I'm not giving it my classic approval. Perhaps time will age this film well, but for now, it just holds up as a decent Spielberg film, good enough to fill that summer movie appetite. Had the first half of the film been a tad more character driven, it may have tipped the scale into masterpiece territory. However, it is the second half of the film that holds the real meat and gives us a classic scare in the basement of an old farmhouse as Tim Robbins helps Cruise and Fanning hide out. In my opinion, this was the best part of the film because it was effective in keeping the audience on the edge of their seat. Again, this worked so well because we manage to stay focused on the characters' fears rather than being hammered by overproduced special effects.
Granted, the special effects are top-notch, but I have to say I actually enjoyed the look of the 1953 alien spacecraft much better than Spielberg's three-legged, octopus version. I also didn't care much for the aliens' weapons because they basically shot a wide laser that turned people into dust. I would have much rather seen the weapon Tim Burton used in "Mars Attacks" as people were simply disintegrated down to their skeletons. Not to mention, Spielberg needs to pay closer attention to various technical details, especially when it comes to the use of EMP.
Overall, "War of the Worlds" delivers a solid meal for the average film buff, but it does come with a small dose of flat soda. Much of it is filled with thrills, frights, anticipatory moments, and a good sense of drama. Its drawbacks are found simply in the Spielberg formula of storytelling, and not that it's a bad thing; it is just that I'm so getting used to it. Perhaps the one thing I have noticed in this film is that the director needs to start channeling his skill in other directions. He tends to have a certain formula that has worked very well for him over the years, and that formula has worked well for me as a viewer in previous films, too, such as in "Saving Private Ryan," "A.I.," and "Minority Report." However, "War of the Worlds" just didn't move me as some of Spielberg's previous films did. I found "War of the Worlds" to be very well made, but I have to admit I had the feeling of redundancy in Spielberg's secret formula, and sadly, the feeling is beginning to get dull. In some ways, you could call this film "Close Encounters of the Evil Kind."
Tim's film rating: 6/10
As is Spielberg's custom, he released "War of the Worlds" to theaters in a 1.85:1 screen ratio, and the DreamWorks video engineers used a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4 codec to transfer the film to Blu-ray disc.
The look Spielberg chose shows up well enough, although, to be frank, I never much cared for it all that much in a theater. The idea is to create a metallic look that complements the dark tone of the alien machines trying to annihilate Mankind. With Blu-ray high definition, the disc provides an image that varies between clear and sharp and somewhat soft, but in both cases very dark and very glassy. Black levels are deep, setting off some deep, rich colors, yet they can also diminish one's ability to discern as much detail as one would like in some of the more-shadowy areas of the screen. Another part of the Spielberg scheme of things is his choice of lens, filters, backlighting, and such that sometimes introduces artificial haloes around objects, a sort of mystic, metallic glow. Offsetting the odd glaze is a fine, natural print grain that provides a little texture to the picture.
One the Blu-ray disc DreamWorks now make the sound available in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and, needless to say, it's better than ever. It is almost as good as it gets and should satisfy the most demanding videophile. Wide dynamics, a strong impact, and a powerfully deep bass dominate the soundtrack, yet one can also discern a multitude of subtle noises as well. The audio engineers never exaggerate the surround effects, yet the effects play an important part in the realism of the moment in things like wind, leaves, crowd sounds, breaking glass, crashing buildings, jet planes, rockets firing, and the like. I enjoyed the quiet space as much as the big booming ones, the noises in the cellar being particularly eerie and suspenseful.
DreamWorks carry over the extras found in their two-disc DVD edition, mostly in standard definition. The first item is the featurette "Revisiting the Invasion," a little over seven minutes, comparing Spielberg's vision of the story with the 1953 version. Next is "The H.G. Wells Legacy," over six minutes with Wells's grandson and other family members. After that is "Steven Spielberg and the Original War of the Worlds," eight minutes on the visual effects then and now, with the two stars of the original movie; followed by "Characters: The Family Unit," thirteen minutes on the family angle in the film; "Previsualization," about eight minutes on the preparation for shooting; and four "Production Diaries" (East Coast: Beginning, East Coast: Exile, West Coast: Destruction, West Coast: War), totaling about ninety minutes, that take us behind the scenes of the shooting.
Then, there is the fourteen-minute featurette "Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens," which gives us a concise yet extensive look at several of the movie's special effects--the design of the tripod war machines and the alien creatures themselves. The screenwriter, David Koepp, tells us that, "The idea of the tripods being buried underground was Steven's...." The director changed it for the heck of it, apparently. He thought, "They always come from space; well, what if I go the other way?" The filmmakers wanted to created something different yet pay homage to the iconic look of the past. I'm not sure I agree with their decisions, but at least we can understand them. The featurette includes comments from Spielberg, Koepp, ILM creature designer Ryan Church, and concept designer Doug Chian, among others. And following that are "Scoring War of the Worlds," twelve minutes on John Williams's music for the film; and "We Are Not Alone," about three minutes on Spielberg's space trilogy ("Close Encounters," "E.T.," and "War of the Worlds").
The extras conclude with four galleries (costume sketches, production stills, behind the scenes, production sketches); a theatrical teaser trailer in high def; twenty-four scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Spielberg's version of "War of the Worlds" does enough things right that it won't disappoint viewers looking for a piece of simple escapism; but the movie can be frustrating for anyone seeking as serious and consistent a story as H.G. Wells originally intended. Or maybe not. Maybe Wells was the Spielberg of his day, out to entertain the masses and the critics be damned. He certainly had his critics. In the meantime, we get an alternative view of "War of the Worlds" with terrific special effects, good acting, a few powerful scenes, and some of the most ridiculous coincidences and corny heroics found in any old-time, B-grade sci-fi flick. Live with it and enjoy.