Friday, August 19, 2005

War of the Worlds (Spielberg, 2005)

The very title of Steven Spielberg's latest action blockbuster is misleading. It suggests epic battles waged throughout the universe on a grand scale. In fact, if you think about it, it's really just a paraphrase of another vastly popular blockbuster -- Star Wars. Star Wars ... War of the Worlds ... if you had no prior knowledge of the content of either story, you might be hard pressed to make a distinction between the two phrases. How surprising then to find that Spielberg's film spends the entirety of its two-hour running time focused on one family. It's a risk. When the topic is global destruction, the realtionships of individual characters that have been arbitrarily selected to be the protagonists of our film can seem trivial. My favorite example is Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck sitting on top of a meteor careening towards Earth in Armageddon and working out whether or not Ben's going to be allowed to take further excursions into Liv Tyler's pants. (Time and place, you idiots! The friggin' world's about to be annihilated!) I am therefore surprised and delighted to report that in the case of War of the Worlds, it is a risk that pays off big-time. Yes, Spielberg is relying on one of his favorite manipulative devices -- the child in peril -- but the difference here is Spielberg takes exceptional care to build a tangible, meaningful connection between said child and her parent. The result is a rare mega-hyped summer blockbuster that actually delivers. I would even go so far to say that it is Spielberg's most successful and satisfying film since Schindler's List.

The reason that War of the Worlds succeeds despite (or indeed because of) Spielberg's decision to narrow his focus to a father and his two children is that larger, resonant themes still manage to prevail. The war fought between these two worlds is not what you might expect. Yes, token attempts are made by the military to slow down the tripods and grenades are used in key moments, but for the most part, humankind is hopelessly outgunned when it comes to firepower. Instead, Spielberg argues, the best evidence of the resiliency of humankind is our intense, visceral need to protect and care for our young. Viewed in that respect, Spielberg's focus is really not that narrow. True, he does not include scenes from other people in other countries who must be undergoing the same struggle for survival. True, he does not go into detail about the aliens' motivation or logic or the 'science' of how they are ultimately repelled. But these things would only dilute the tense experience of a father being thrown into an instance of unspeakable horror and doing every thing in his capabilities to not only save his daughter's life, but to protect her innocence. It is here where Spielberg excels in this film. In this family, he has crystallized the essence of the most intense form of human love, that of a parent to a child, and pitted it against aggression and violence beyond comprehension.

It is here where I must address the political parallels made by the film, and yes, there are parallels to be made. For those who feel that Spielberg's film is devoid of these concerns, I suggest that you ask yourself this: why did the screenwriters make a point of noting that Robbie was writing a paper on the French occupation of Algeria? A subject selected at random? Hardly. I suspect that many Americans will misinterpret the political subtext at play in War of the Worlds (9-11? Wrong, try again) or more likely, deny that it even exists. The reason, apart from the fact that Americans seem curiously resistant to any political content in their entertainment, is that the only logical interpretation is rather unflattering. Although the fictional United States of the film is the defender, triumphing over ruthless aggression, the real-life United States would more accurately be characterized as the technological powerhouse possessing the power to quickly disable other nations and secure desired resources. It may be an unsettling notion, but try to imagine a military operation seen from the perspective of a working class father in an underdeveloped nation. Would he care about the invader's motivations? Of course not. He would simply work to protect his loved ones until the danger subsided and shield their eyes from the sight of destruction and fields covered in blood.

Is Spielberg's film an indictment of American involvement in Iraq? That may be going too far. After all, this is the man who directed Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, the military comes out looking good here as well, as Cruise's character receives some critical aid from a man dressed in Army fatigues. However, the viewer is required to imagine a scenario in which the United States faces occupation by a force possessing overwhelming technological sophistication. Intentional or not, Americans will be asked to empathize with the invaded and ask themselves how much they would do to protect their children. Coming from the man whose name is synonomous with mainstream filmmaking, that's a pretty subversive notion.

War of the Worlds has occasional flaws, but these are mostly dwarfed by the size of the film's accomplishments. Exciting, moving and surprisingly stimulating intellectually, it's one of the year's best films thus far.



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