War of the Worlds… LONG review *SPOILERS*

It has been a long time since I was actually frightened by a film. I was frightened by this film… More like physically terrified, shaken out of my seat… Its the sounds! The sound technicians on this movie should win a pile of awards.
When the “Fighting engines of glittering metal” are about to appear it is not so much their look you dread as their horrifying horn like war-cry… It is chilling. All the alien technology has a visceral and disturbing sonorance. A living, pulsating industrial grind which drives you into submission. The Red Weed “fertilizing” scenes are particularly grim and I suspect some use of sub bass frequencies to be in play…. I suspect also that watching this movie at home on a regular (non surround sound system) will not trigger the same responses.
Having said that the visuals are not to be knocked in any way. Although to say the effects in a Spielberg movie are amazing is a little redundant. If he can’t get the effects right with practically his own studio behind him then it would be a pretty sad day. The Effects are marvelous! However they are remarkable in two ways. They are creative and adventurous at some points and at other times lazy and pointless. The first appearance of a tripod is expertly handled. The rising sense of panic from the assembled crowd is palpable as a small hole in a road, apparently created by multiple lightning strikes, breaks open and spreads. Amongst this earthquake a huge section of the city block seems to unscrew beneath their feet and the subsequent collapse releases a towering mechanical monster. The use of hand-held, highly kinetic shots builds on the pandemonium and chaos as we catch glimpses of the towering machine unfurling and preparing itself in almost silence. And then the mechanical sounds begin and you know that whatever is coming next it isn’t going to be friendly.. As Ray (Tom Cruise) runs for his life amongst the teeming streets the metal titan reigns down electric death around him in the form of the first disintegrator beams I can recall in a Sci-Fi movie for a very long time. These heat rays however are not the quaint weapons of yesteryear but truly scary sweeping arcs of plasma reducing everything they touch to ash with a stomach churning Pop…. Its all in the sounds!
The Aliens themselves however, when they venture out of their tripods, are the sad product of a Hollywood design team on auto pilot. Ok so they have attempted to make a plausible tri-ped creature, it’s not this diversion from the book’s description I have trouble with. It’s the fact that these creatures are in no way threatening, with their child-like proportions and big button eyes, they are way too reminiscent of all the “Grey’ aliens we have seen time and time again on the large and small screen. Their amusing, bumbling about amongst the basement kipple is at odds with the cold blooded, systematic execution of the fighting engines and this dissipates any threat built up by the mysterious killing machines. They are rendered with great polish and style but are simply not up to the job. If they had not been in the movie it would have benefited considerably.
Dramatically the film is odd. It lopes along in a very episodic way with the three main protagonists moving from one set piece to another with little sense of place or time scale. Indeed it is difficult to tell whether the whole movie is set over the space of a few days or a couple of weeks. None of the characters are particularly engaging. Cruise in fact plays a very unlikable fellow who’s journey of self discovery through the need to connect with and protect his kids is flat and simplistic… He is one of the worst “heros” in a blockbuster movie for a long time… In fact other than a single act of near suicidal bravery towards the end of the film, which happens more by luck than judgement, he simple runs away from the aliens and drags his kids with him. The only driving plot point, that they must get to Boston to meet the kid’s mother…. But why Boston should be any safer, or what they plan to do there is never explored. Their brief stint in a bombed out basement with Ogilvy, Tim Robbins in near unrecognisable form, simply serves to alter the threat from action based to suspense based as they hide from the alien’s probing tentacles. Ogilvy is also an odd character, an amalgam of characters from the book. Robbins is clearly struggling with the disparate traits he has been dealt. He simultaneously has the lost faith of the book’s preacher and the over enthusiastic optimism of the artilleryman. All wrapped up in a splatter movie’s shorthand, creepy psycho guy. When Ray has to, ‘have a little talk’ with him you feel that he really wasn’t that much of a threat and this act of aggression was a little over to much.
There is a splendid fluidity to the camera work throughout the movie with not a few clever new tricks being used to float the viewer in, around and away from the characters whilst they are in desperate flight from destruction. And there are some spectacular set pieces. Notably the attack on a fleeing car ferry. Though this does suffer slightly from fairy jarring editing at times and if I am going to nit pick, some odd scale issues with the Tripods. However the end comes out of nowhere. It is true to the book and should be expected but it is not handled very well. An additional twenty minutes of travelling scenes through devastated towns to the point where you felt there really was no hope would have helps out here. But the final confrontation between alien machines and U S troops just shows the troops to be the sort of people who like to kick a man when he is already down.. or in this case just about to fall over anyway, and subsequently any supposed victory is hollow..
Overall a good updated adaptation which didn’t fall into too many Hollywood blockbuster traps, delivered some surprises and was bloodier and grimmer than I was expecting. A good “roller-coaster” film which could benefit from an extended cut for the DVD….. We will see.