Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

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There is something distinctively vintage about Stephen Spielberg’s loose adaptation of HG Welles’ famous science fiction novel, War of the Worlds. One of the ways that this is the case is that Spielberg creates a visual look that has a remarkable resemblance to a black and white film. At times, one is convinced that they being transported back to the 1950s.

The desaturated and murky grey look complements some of the film’s dramatic moments. One of the scenes where the visual scheme casts the most substantial impression is when Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) comes back into his house after witnessing the destruction that a Martian tripod has left in its wake. Ferrier looks utterly bewildered and shocked that he cannot talk for a few minutes when his children ask him what’s wrong nor shake off the white dust that he has all over his face and jacket.

This seemingly quiet and still moment is missing some Bernard Hermann inspired music which would punctuate the moment of Ferrier reflecting on the grisly acts he has witnessed and the implications that they have on the survival of his family. However, as the scene stands it feels like it has the weight of the latter scenes in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Spielberg also continues his showcasing of a bleaker outlook on humanity which started with AI: Artificial Intelligence and continued with the compelling and masterfully crafted Minority Report. In this picture, Spielberg illustrates that while humanity is the master of a domain that it has thrived in for centuries, our survival instinct has made us monstrous. The clearest example of this idea being articulated comes in a scene in the middle of the film. Ferrier and his children are driving slowly through a swarm of people, and some of the people take it upon themselves to attempt to take the car through violent means away from Ferrier.

The idea is also strongly expressed when Ferrier and his daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) are taken in by Harlan Ogilvy. (Tim Robbins) Ogilvy is a paranoid person who is determined to attack the aliens back even if it means endangering the people around him. Robbins plays Ogilvy with a great sense of harsh logic and heartbreaking fragility.

Nevertheless, Spielberg’s central illustration of humanity is at it’s most potent when he employs his usual point of view shots from the children’s perspective. In the case of this picture, there are many haunting perspective shots from Ferrier’s daughter, Rachel.

The most striking of which is when she is witnessing an active streaming river. The music and shot composition suggest that the moment is a calm and magical interlude from the destruction that we have seen. However, this momentary thought is shattered when she starts seeing a large assortment of dead bodies pass her by in the flowing river. In this one scene, Spielberg strongly illustrates that in the battle for our evolutionary dominance, our fundamental quality of innocence that comes in the form of our offspring is lost and in some sense our humanity is too.

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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