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Tom Cruise 1, Martians 0

July 6th, 2005

The four-day Fourth of July weekend was largely a good one. Temperate weather meant we could open the windows and “blow the stink off our kitties.” It also allowed us to indulge in daily neighborhood walks, though a minor disaster occurred during one of these when a vicious rock leapt up and tripped Vicky, causing her to badly skin her knee.

In addition to mowing the lawn and getting our weekly shopping out of the way, we finally managed to plan our impending trip to New England. While we enjoy taking vacations, neither one of us loves planning an itinerary. This one was especially difficult because the travel books for New England emphasize all of its Colonial/Revolutionary heritage, and frankly, we could care less about those historical periods. Mostly, we’re interested in visiting our friends Dave and Becky, and spending some time by the seashore. However, I do have my sights set on seeing the P.T. Barnum museum in Connecticut, and the grave of H.P. Lovecraft in Rhode Island.

Another accomplishment was to begin clearing out the accumulated detritus on my TiVo-Like Device (TM). While I love my digital video recorder, its ease of use and vast storage capacity mean that unwatched TV shows can quickly pile up. I finally saw the last three episodes of Enterprise, the last two of The Simpsons, a documentary about the first five years of Saturday Night Live, and several feature films, including Gods and Monsters. I watched Running Time, a quirky, independent film starring my favorite actor, Bruce Campbell. It’s a caper film shot as one continuous cut. (Though, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, it has a number of concealed edits.)

I also saw Kiss Me Deadly, a notorious film noir that I’ve read much about over the years. It’s got to be one of the darkest noir films ever, with a brutal, unsympathetic version of detective Mike Hammer beating up thugs, old men, women and anyone else he can get his meaty fists on in his search for a mysterious box containing an unrevealed treasure: something which glows under its own power and emits an unearthly howl. (This plot device was later borrowed by both Repo Man and Pulp Fiction.) It was a really interesting, atomic-age thriller with a deliberately inconclusive conclusion.

Finally, I drove out to the Lorraine Theater in Hoopeston yet again for the opening weekend of the new War of the Worlds. While neither Vic nor myself were all that thrilled about the idea of supporting Tom Cruise in even an insignificant fashion, for me the prospect of a big-budget alien invasion flick trumped that concern. (For Vic, I believe that it may have been the popcorn.)

War of the Worlds is not an easy story to adapt. Its protagonist is an anonymous observer of events, and the story resolves itself without (in fact, despite) any involvement by its human characters. The Martians are defeated by common bacteria, and while that’s a thematically-sound ending for a novel about an arrogant colonizing army, it makes a somewhat lackluster conclusion for a movie.

Most adaptations of War of the Worlds update the story to a modern setting. While that’s understandable, it’s also too bad, as the Martian threat is more credible in the days before instant communications and weapons of mass destruction. The 1953 film version gave the Martian war machines nuclear-proof force fields, a notion retained for Steven Spielberg’s remake.

The 2005 movie is both more and less faithful to the source material than previous versions. The most obvious difference is the depiction of the Martian machines as tripods. (The 1953 flick saved time and money by having them hover on invisible beams of energy.) We also get to see the Red Weed, plant life used by the Martians to terraform our world.

On the other hand, the remake confounds our expectations by removing any references to Mars; the origin point of the aliens is never revealed. Furthermore, rather than landing as meteorites, the invaders burst up from underground. I’m really not sure why that latter change was made. One suggestion was that it was meant to evoke the post-9/11 fear of an enemy already among us. I suppose that it might be harder to accept the chain of events depicted in the novel in a modern setting; we probably would not give the aliens the time to build their tripods that H.G. Wells afforded them.

Tom Cruise stars as a deadbeat father saddled with two kids for the weekend. While this can certainly be seen as Spielberg’s usual obsession with family, it does at least serve some purpose by giving him someone with whom to interact. (Wells’ nameless protagonist tells the majority of the story via interior monologue, a technique which usually doesn’t work well on film.) Although I think that the story of Cruise learning to become a better parent is almost completely irrelevant to the mass extermination going on around him, it does provide a framework for his travels and some motivation beyond pure survival.

One thing I do like about the film is that, like Signs, the main characters are utterly peripheral to the conflict. Most alien invasion flicks are set in Pentagon war rooms or super-science thinktanks staffed by experts. To the contrary, Cruise never knows exactly what is happening outside of direct observation or occasional, often contradictory rumors.

The scenes of devastation are as terrifyingly intense as anything I’ve ever seen in a theater, and for that reason alone I can recommend the film. Being buffetted by the Lorraine’s kick-ass sound system reminded me of watching Earthquake in SenSurround: each lightning bolt or mechanical foot stomp shook my seat. The tensest moments occur in two scenes near the midpoint, one in which Cruise attempts to drive his car (one of the few still functional after electromagnetic pulses disrupt most electrical equipment) through a vicious mob of refugees, and another during a perilous ferry ride.

Things unfortunately slow down during an extended stay in a cellar. While this sequence is lifted from the book, it seems to stretch out longer than necessary. Spielberg appears to be going for the “Raptors in the kitchen” scene from Jurassic Park, but this sort of “house under siege” scarefest played better in Signs or Night of the Living Dead. Cruise’s noisy attempts to avoid the invader’s snakelike electric eye (another holdover from the ’53 film) become almost absurd.

Worse is the inclusion of Tim Robbins as the wild-eyed survivalist whom invites Cruise to share his basement. Not that Robbins does a bad job; it’s just that the instant he showed up on screen, I was completely taken out of the film, instead thinking “It’s Tim Robbins!” While his character performs a similar function to that of the artilleryman from the novel, his notions of overthrowing the aliens seem less a misplaced estimation of his own abilities than total, bugfuck insanity. Plus, he’s apparently a pedophile to boot.

While there’s been a lot of criticism of the abrupt ending, I really can’t blame Spielberg for being true to the source. Like it or not, that’s the story of War of the Worlds.

All in all, I feel the film is a solid piece of nightmare fuel. The scenes of destruction are stunning and absolutely convincing. The tripods and their occupants are well-realized. While I missed the distinctive sound effects of the ’53 version, I otherwise feel that the two compare well on their own merits. Neither one is exactly a masterpiece of plotting or characterization, but for sheer terror, both sets of Martians rule.

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