Sunday, July 03, 2005

Film: Just Another Disaster Flick, Spielberg-Style

I don't think I can be fair to this movie until after I get my Tom Cruise rant off my chest. I promise to keep it as short as possible.

No matter what you think of his relationship with Katie Holmes or scientology or where he got the idea that he knows more about psychology than experts actually trained in the subject, the bottom line is, Tom Cruise has been acting like a jackass lately.

We Americans tend to assume that everyone has a constitutional right to behave like a damned fool…at least up to a point. And we tend to assume that celebrities are going to act like damned fools now and then. We're disappointed (but not surprised) when Michael Jackson dances on an SUV outside a California courtroom, demonstrating an appalling disrespect for the justice system. We're disappointed (but not surprised) when Russell Crowe throws a tantrum and assaults a hotel employee. But we do expect even celebrities to make some basic acknowledgment that whatever they did to bring public disapproval down on themselves probably wasn't a good idea.

What's really irritating about Cruise's recent behavior is that, not only is he behaving like a jackass, but he's giving the appearance he really believes being a jackass isn't just his God-given right but is the right thing to do.

He's just wrong about that. Big box-office numbers don't make rude, rowdy behavior right, and if Cruise keeps it up, it's very likely to backfire on him eventually.

OK, now I've got that out of my system.

Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is pretty much a standard disaster flick, heavy on the mortal peril and light on meaning. Not that that's a problem, at least for me--I like disaster flicks. This one is a lot like what you'd expect from the offspring resulting from mating Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. And, let's face it--this story is oft-trodden ground. But from Spielberg, I really was hoping for more. Oh, well. It's summer; have some popcorn, turn off your brain and enjoy the show.

I was told the film was very scary, but I didn't find it so. It is, however, compellingly suspenseful and fast-paced and contains one truly creepy moment involving a flaming train. The basic story-line revolves around dockworker Ray Ferrier's struggle to survive the alien invasion with his children, young Rachel and teenage Robbie. The desire to protect his kids comes to Ferrier a bit late--not only is he something of a deadbeat dad at the outset, but he then leaves the kids alone at home while he satisfies his own curiosity about what caused the "lightning" that starts all the trouble. As he's never been good at taking care of them before, it's no wonder they have doubts about his ability to cope now.

At bottom, this clearly is intended to be the story of a family bonding together in adversity, and as such, it has only one noteworthy twist: Eventually, Ferrier realizes he simply can't protect both kids, especially the one who really doesn't want to be protected, and has to let one of them go. He and his son only bond when it becomes clear where Robbie acquired the guts and resourcefulness to get through--from his father. That twist is almost enough to lift the film out of the standard-disaster-flick rut. Almost, but not quite, because all we see of that transformation is from the father's point of view, and that turns the ending into something of a Deus ex machina.

On the side of I-expected-better, there are some annoying logic issues in the plot. The aliens' electromagnetic pulse apparently works only inconsistently--sometimes it affects cars and lights (but not camcorders), but other times it affects cars but leaves the lights on. And I'm still scratching my head at how aliens as technologically sophisticated as these wouldn't think to test the air and water for agents that might be toxic to them, especially after having been on Earth once before to bury their infernal machines.

There are some nice homages in the film. Unlike the 1953 film, the aliens' machines are walking tripods as in H.G. Wells' novel. There's an extended sequence with the eye-tentacle that made such a spooky appearance in the earlier film. And there's a basically needless plane crash, for anyone who hadn't already gotten the parallels with September 11.

If you have difficulty picturing Tom Cruise as everyman, you won't be the first or the last. But there's so much going on in this film that you'll get over it after a while; his performance is good but not great. The rest of the cast is solid, too. The always-impressive Dakota Fanning is a joy to watch, as usual, and Justin Chatwin is suitably manic-depressive as the obligatory sullen teenage son.

In short, if it weren't for some absolutely marvelous special effects, I'd say you'd be OK waiting for the DVD. But no matter how big your television is, it won't render that flaming train the same way. Ramp down your expectations, but head for the theater.

And while we're on the subject of oft-trodden ground: Yet another remake of King Kong? In the name of God, why?