In the wake of the over-blown quagmire that was MUNICH, my friend Nik suggested that Spielberg "stick to dinosaurs". It was a good suggestion - after all, JURASSIC PARK is the last genuine blockbuster movie that Steven Spielberg directed, at least in terms of box office success. However, the purpose of this review is to stake a claim for WAR OF THE WORLDS as one of the greatest B-movies ever made. The opening of the movie is high-class, with some nicely-observed modern family dialogue between divorced parent, Tom Cruise, his moody adolescent son and his precocious daughter, played by Dakota Fanning. And then, without wasting too much time, the aliens start attacking the earth and the whole thing just goes popcorn-tastic. Roads are ripped up, burning trains hurtle through railway stations, airplanes fall out of the sky. It's just a giant disaster movie with all the best bits rolled into one. Of course, this is Spielberg so all the whistles and bangs and explosions work well, especially when they ape scenes from Jurassic Park. (Just compare that scene where the tripod tentacle is sniffing round the basement with the raptors stalking the kids in the kitchen.)
But the great thing is that this movie also has some great dialogue that allows the characters to show "real" emotions. Tom Cruise is not a simple action hero - he is often more freaked out than his kids are and while this is clearly not the kind of iconic performance that he gave in Magnolia, it is leagues above the kind of cock-sure twit he usually plays in action movies. Dakota Fanning does what she does well too - she looks cute, is scared and screams a lot. For some reason the costume designer decided to give her the kitsch on-acid wardrobe of a seventies muppet, but that only adds to the charm. There are even some nicely handled patches of humour. "They came from somewhere else. Like Europe? NO, ROBBIE, NOT LIKE EUROPE." And we get the added bonus of seeing the always slightly creepy Tim Robbins as a loon.
Of course, the film does have its flaws, but even these are rather endearing. As we all know, the movie is based on the famous novel by H.G.Wells, wherein a bunch of super-intelligent aliens attack the earth and start exterminating humans using tripods that were buried underground millenia ago. Back when H.G. was writing I bet that spindly-legged tripods seemed really scary, but now, well, they just don't cut it. I reckon Spielberg would have done better to either redesign or show the devestation caused by the tripods rather than the tripods themselves. In addition, while the ending is true to the novel, and made a new and interesting point about evolution back in the day, to me, a contemporary viewer, it seemed a little bit weak. But you know what, this is WAR OF THE WORLDS, and I think you just have to go with it. Ditto the moment where I thought the movie really jumped the shark - when Cruise starts singing a "lullaby" to his daughter. I mean, it's painfully cheesy, but even here there is a certain charm in Cruise being willing to do something quite that ridiculous outside of Oprah.
WAR OF THE WORLDS is available on DVD.