I saw War of the Worlds - the Tom Cruise/ Steven Spielberg version - in the theatre when it first came out (this was before Tom Cruise became a total negative for me). It's on television tonight, and seeing it again reminded me of my original opinion of it, which is this:
WOTW would have been an awesome and terrifying movie, except that it was made by Steven Spielberg.
I've thought for a while now that Steven Spielberg is at war with himself. Although I'm no film conniesuer (or speller of conniesuer), I think it started with (or resurfaced as a result of) Schindler's List. I'm totally speculating and making stuff up, but I think that once Spielberg became aware of the larger things he could do with film and the larger darkness that exists at the heart of humanity as a result of Schindler's List, he became a filmmaker divided against himself. And there is no where that division is clearer than in WOTW.
The first side of Spielberg is the side we all know and love. It's the E.T. side, the Jurassic Park side, the "OMG look how awesome side." It's whimsical and amazing and sometimes scary in a T.Rex-chasing-a-jeep sort of way. In movies by Sunny Spielberg, people die, but only people who deserve to die, like the lawyer in Jurassic Park or the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The other side of Spielberg is the dark side, the side that understands that people are selfish and horrible, that bad things happen for no reason, that sometimes evil triumphs. This is the side that, now that I think of it, showed itself for the first time in Jaws, but really resurfaced in Schindler's List, when because of the subject matter, it was absolutely impossible for Spielberg to be Sunny Spielberg. Since then, many of his movies have had this dichotomy - the Sunny Side running smack dab into the dark side. In the big hits, like Minority Report, it's barely there (although you can see it if you look), but the flops (if anything Spielberg does can be called a flop) like WOTW, are almost schizophrenic in their vascillations.
Some examples - WOTW, for those of you who don't know, is based on the HG Wells story about aliens who land on the earth to take it over and they are totally winning until they are destroyed by the common cold virus. Spielberg's adaptation uses the very effective strategy of taking a Man On The Street point of view - we spend the whole time with Ray (Tom Cruise), a dock worker guy who is just trying to survive the attack. With the exception of an encounter with a news crew and a late run-in with an army squadron, Ray's only information about what is happening comes from what he experiences himself. Very cool.
This means that the audience, like Ray, is limited in their knowledge. We only see what he sees, hear what he hears. We don't know any more than he does. Additionally, Ray is not the best-equipped to handle the end of the world. He's not very educated, although he does have some basic car maintenance skills. He's not very patient, or reassuring, or understanding, even with his own children. (His daughter, terrified, asks at one point "are we going to be okay?" Ray's response? "I don't know."). He's not a very good parent at all, actually, something his kids, who only see him on the weekend, already know. When she's terrified, his daughter turns to her older brother for comfort instead of Ray.
The alien attack is brutal and awful. People are, literally, vaporized into dust. Buildings shake and fall apart. Ray steals a car from a friend who gets killed right in front of him. Mobs of people attack each other for the limited resources that still exist. At one point, a crowd is stopped at a railroad crossing and suddenly, a train goes by.
It is on fire.
At another point, Ray and his daughter take refuge in a basement with a man who owns the house. At first, Ray is relieved to be safe and with someone else. Then, over time, he realizes that the man is a whacko who may have designs on his daughter (who is 10) and it is either kill or be killed. He takes the man into a room and murders him.
In other words, this is not the Steven Spielberg we know and love. This is Dark Spielberg. His vision of the future is bleak and cold and dangerous and scary. And WOTW could have been an awesome movie about how people react when the whole world is falling apart and what one man will do to save his children.
But it's counteracted by the Sunny Spielberg, the Spielberg who has to make jokes, who has to be cute. For example, when Ray is in the basement in hiding aliens come down into the basement. They toodle around and look at photos and spin the wheels on bikes. They're cute. They're funny. They don't seem scary or evil, they seem ... sort of cuddly, like maybe they were designed with the ultimate goal of War of the Worlds plush toys in mind or something.
And the ending, OMG, the ending! Skip the rest of this if you don't want to know how it ends, but I have to tell you that the ending of WOTW is the most cheesy Sunny Spielberg ending EVER! So Ray's son runs off at some point in the movie, going to join the army and fight the aliens, and he goes over a hilltop and the whole damn world basically starts on fire. It's total annihilation. So, that's tragic, right, that Ray's son totally got killed by running off to join the army?
Except he doesn't! At the end of the movie, Ray finally gets to Boston (where he's gone to look for his ex-wife, who is visiting her parents there). And he gets to their neighborhood and his wife comes out of the house and she's (understandably) thrilled and grateful to see them and yay, Ray has managed to save his daughter, but, of course, boo, because his son has died and that's the tragic cost of war/alien invasion.
And then the son comes out the door.
Yep, that's right. The son, who went over the hill into the Fire That Ate The World, somehow lived through the fire and everything that followed and made it to Boston before his father. sigh. Just ... sigh. Because Sunny Spielberg couldn't have let someone who didn't deserve to die just die, because bad things happen, sometime for no reason. Thus, a bittersweet but realistic (insomuch as a movie about aliens attacking can be realistic) ending is ruined by Sunny Spielberg's desire for Happily Ever After.
In other words, the whole thing is terribly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying, even though it shows a lot of potential. I personally cannot wait until Spielberg makes a movie that's all Dark Spielberg, but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon.