I didn’t think it was possible to make movies like this any more. War of the Worlds is an almost perfectly realized movie of the classic aliens-attack type: satisfying, believable, and very, very scary. It comes so close to perfection that a long list of accolades are going to have to be cleared out of the way before we get around to that “almost.”
Ray Ferrier, a dockworker, has just gotten charge of his kids for the weekend, as his ex-wife and her new husband head off for a weekend at her mom’s. The teenaged son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), is resentful and rude; the ten-year-old daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), is a bit too world-weary for someone still carrying plastic ponies around. (After Ray blows up at Robbie she informs her dad, “You’re never going to get through to him that way.”)
We get a couple of hints from an overheard news broadcast that somewhere in “the Ukraine” (didn’t they drop the “the” years ago?) there have been solar flares and power outages. But then a curious thing starts to happen in the local neighborhood. Ray is exhilarated to watch a gusty whirl of gray in the sky, which pulls the wind toward it and sends all the backyard laundry flapping. “It’s like the Fourth of July!” he tells Rachel; she, quite sensibly scared, replies, “No, it isn’t.”
That’s the last time anything in this movie is remotely normal. As the extent of the alien attack becomes increasingly apparent, the situation shoots to the level of hopeless and stays there. Ray’s goal becomes simply to get his children safely back to their mother. Rather than unfolding a storyline, it is a series of harrowing experiences, one after another. Which is, truthfully, what living something like this would be like.
That’s most impressive thing about what director Steven Spielberg has done here: This crazy story about space aliens destroying the earth is so realistic. We never know anything more than what Ray knows, and he doesn’t know much. Decisions are as agonizing and unclear to us as they are to him. He trudges day after day, exhausted and filthy, and we too feel the interminable and hopeless nature of his quest. In its own way, War of the Worlds is like the harrowing first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” (of which Spielberg was producer). It takes you there, and makes you feel it.
When Ray walks past a wall adorned, as Manhattan was after September 11, with notices begging for help in locating lost relatives, we think, “Yes, that’s what it would be like.” When Rachel and her dad argue over her need to have privacy for a roadside potty break, and his need to have her never out of his sight, we know that’s just the kind of thing that would happen. When they encounter people along the way who are kind, or who are suddenly and alarmingly vicious, or who are something strangely in-between (a great performance by Tim Robbins), we know we would meet that range of characters too.
Steven Spielberg has wisely located the power of this story, not in the size of the aliens or their destructive powers, but in how such threats would make us feel. Other directors trust the effects to be big and noisy enough to elicit these emotions, but Spielberg has set his sights on the subjective, experiential feel of the story itself. It’s a terrible temptation that now, with computer images, there are no limits to special effects; you can make an explosion 30-feet high, or 300, or more, so why not go for the biggest bang you can get for the buck? But a super-size wowzer like that becomes a distraction, breaking the bounds of the story and taking on separate existence as a mere object of gawking. Spielberg tames the effects and makes them serve the story. By exercising restraint he manages to make even a movie about invading aliens, in some sense, realistic.
Only “almost” perfect? The ending is a little sweeter than it needed to be, and a little clunky for that, but it’s not a serious flaw. If anything, Spielberg’s pursuit of “you are there” realism is too relentless. He wisely forgoes scenes that would constitute “comic relief,” but also gives us little in the way of character development, and nothing truly develops in the plot. The misery and anxiety-saturated atmosphere is so endless that we never get a break–no moments of hope or beauty, that would give us a breather. Halfway through the movie I scribbled this note: “Along about here I got tired of being scared.” I was tired of being at this pitch of tension for so long, tired of worrying about these people, and not knowing what horrific thing would happen next. But real life wouldn’t give us a break, and Spielberg doesn’t either. Few movies about flying saucers and bug-eyed aliens tell us such true things about human nature. War of the Worlds sets a new standard for space-age classics; it’s in a universe of its own.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.