November 24, 2005

If You Ever Expect To Be Invaded By Aliens, Don't Have Kids

Movie Review: War of the Worlds

Short Version: When faced with a choice between seeing this movie, or shooting yourself, aim for your thigh: you don't hit any bones, and you'll heal faster.

Directed by: Steven "I used to make good movies" Spielberg.

Starring: Tom "I did stupid better than Keanu" Cruise.

Also Starring: Dakota "Screamer" Fanning.

Also Starring: Any Sullen, Average Teenager to play "Sullen, Average Teen".

Also Starring: Tim "Boy, I must have needed money" Robbins.

(There were also some crowd scenes, but those people likely don't want their names associated with this alien shitstorm.)

Written By: People who are not H.G. Wells.

I seem to have expanded my ouvre: having reviewed Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven (three movies with a historical theme united by sucking more than "Ishtar"), I watched Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" last night.

Oh My God, did this suck. To put a fine point on it, it sucked worse than "Kingdom of Heaven", but not as much as "Alexander" (which may rank as the worst movie ever made); this puts it somewhere around "Troy" in suckiness. Recognize, however, that this categorization is sort of silly: kinda like trying to decide how deep in the septic tank you are.

The plot should be reasonably familiar to anyone with half a brain: big, alien machines invade earth, beat the crap out of everything, and then die of some random Earth germs. H.G. Wells wrote the short novella in 1898. At the time, I expect, this was cutting-edge science fiction: germs were a (somewhat) recent discovery by modern science, and having the aliens die by them was an interesting plot device (or, presumably, was then).

107 years later, it doesn't work. Or, at least, it doesn't work when Spielberg attempts it.

The movie opens with Tom Cruise as a longshoreman in New York City, generally being a dick. He's divorced, and he shows up late at his house to take custody of his kids (mom & stepdad are dropping them off before going to Boston). He doesn't seem to like them, they don't seem to like him, and he doesn't seem to know much about how to care for them (one is about 8, the other about 16; you'd think he might have some clues since he's been a father for, oh, 16 years). There isn't any food in the house, and the place is a wreck. Oh Tom, you bad dad! Viewers are already supposed to understand that Tom will come to a different point of view by the end of the movie.

Tom goes to sleep, to the sound of the TV talking about how the entire Ukraine has been engulfed in massive lightning storms that seem to have wiped out all electrical equipment in the country (foreshadowing: a high-class literary device). There is someone on TV discussing EMP (or Electro-Magnetic Pulse). This is the fact that certain types of bombs (particularly nuclear weapons; EMP has been known about since the 1940s) produce massive bursts of energy. When that energy encounters metal (like, wires and circuits), it generates voltage across the wire, and that voltage (like any current) discharges itself to ground (think: static electricity). Now, the bigger the metal the more the voltage. Thus, massive metal towers mean big voltage. Small metal things (cell phones, computers) mean little voltage. The crux of the matter is what sort of "thing" is the voltage going through. Modern electronics (anything with a computer chip in it) are very fragile: any sort of voltage through it the wrong way, and it basically just dies. The pathways carved in the chip are literally scrambled, and it won't ever operate again. Bigger things (like, say, metal towers) have no chips in them, and don't really care about this. So, the more technologically advanced the "thing", the more damage is done to it.

Why this long digression? Funny you should ask. See, when Cruise and Fanning wake up, a big dark cloud appears and lots of lightning strikes all over whatever part of New York they are in ("Sullen Teenage Boy" has taken Cruise's car off somewhere, giving Cruise another reason to be irritated with him). As a result of these lightning strikes, there is a massive EMP burst (remember the TV from last night: foreshadowing!). Thus, nothing electronic works. The aliens are arriving (literally: it turns out later that they come down from space in the lighting bolts). The EMP burst knocks out the power. The cell phones don't work. The phones don't work. The cars don't work. Why? EMP.

See, I learned about EMP through 10 minutes of googling. The reason the power went out is because the power company uses computers to run the power grid: computers are the first thing to get fried. The wires are fine; the generators (big metal) are likely fine (but need computers to operate them). Hence, no power. The phones don't work: the lines are fine, but the central switching is all done with computers, and those are all fried. The cell phones and computers are toast. As are CD players, cordless phones, microwave ovens, and cars (modern cars have more computers than you can imagine). What works: anything that doesn't have a computer chip in it. I learned all of this in 10 minutes on the web. I might have some of the details wrong (very close to the center of an EMP burst - where the energy is strongest - even non-computer electronics would be fried, but the effects are clearly related to the radius from the center).

Tom Cruise's car (seen once, before he goes to sleep; the "sullen teenage kid" has stolen it by the time Cruise wakes up - this is more Spielberg family crap) is some sort of mid-1960s Shelby Mustang. There isn't a computer in it. They didn't even use computers to design the damn thing. Yet, it too is dead after the EMP burst. Everybody's car is dead. People are all standing around, hoods up, scratching their heads. Cruise (after yelling at his kids to stay inside) goes wandering around the neighborhood to see what might be seen. He comes across an auto repair shop (where he seems to be known), where they ask his advice about fixing all the broken cars. The mechanic has replaced the starter motor, but the car still doesnt' work. Cruise's advice: "Change the solenoid." Whatever that is (it seems to be part of the system that controls the starter motor: see, more knowledge with google). But, the EMP destroyed the computer in the car; the starter motor and solenoid are just fine. The car doesn't work because when you put in the key, the signal to start the car gets to the big, dead hunk of fried plastic and silicon that used to be the computer, but is now just a blocky paperweight. Nonetheless, Cruise (10 minutes later, after witnessing the alien war machine explode out of the ground and start zapping people) runs back and gets into the car (with the new solenoid) and drives it out of the lot.

Lets review: we're 15 minutes into the movie, and Spielberg has already thrown out basic physics in order to create a "story". In 15 minutes of googling, I've figured out that Spielberg is an idiot and Cruise's cool 60s Mustang should be running fine, and the dumpy Dodge Caravan (with the new solenoid!) should be a two-ton lawn ornament.

Why do I spend so much time on this fairly trivial point? It irritates me when movies just make shit up in order to "drive the plot" or somesuch. Their attitude seems to be "Well, if they are willing to believe in aliens, then they won't question any other thing we write, or how the characters act." This is fundamentally wrong. The reason people read science-fiction, fantasy and fiction in general is to see what otherwise ordinary people do when confronted with extra-ordinary possibilities. The point isn't to generate a completely fictional world: if it is completely fictional, then regular humans (i.e., readers/viewers) can't relate to it and find no real interest in who does what to whom. The point is to introduce some fictional elements (say, aliens) into a scene that people can understand (say, London in 1900; see "War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells as an example of this). Thus, when Spielberg starts the time-honored Hollywood technique of "making shit up" in order to move the story from one CGI "blow-'em-up" to another, and follows this up by making yet more shit up to get us to the next scene where Cruise emotes all over his wonderful kids, I sorta lose interest. And to regain my interest, I start counting all the things that Speilberg had to make up in order to get us to the next scene that only Spielberg gives a shit about.

Back to the movie:

So Cruise wanders around the city streets for a while. He eventually finds a whole passel of people standing around a smoking hole in the ground. He pushes his way to the front, and gets to mouth some line about how cold the fragments are (nothing whatsoever should be cold: lightning isn't cold, alien ships falling through the atmosphere aren't cold - friction creates heat; this is more inane Spielberg nonsense. The "cold" alien fragments do nothing to drive the plot, and never return in the story. Cruise even picks up a "cold" fragment and puts it in his pocket. I kept expecting it to return to the story at some point, but it never does).

At this point, with the help of CGI, a fairly massive alien warship erupts out of the ground. It makes a whale-mating-call sound, and starts shooting destructo-rays at people/cars/buildings/whatever. The destructo-rays turn everything they touch into dust. This seems to be the only weapon the alien warship has. Cruise runs away (as people/buildings all around him turn to dust), back to his kids. Thus begins the main part of the movie: the attempt to get from New York to Boston (where Mom is).

(An aside: what's up with the aliens? They travel several light years, and the worst weapon they have is a destructo-ray? I'm not knocking the destructo-ray, but do you have any idea how long it would take to depopulate the earth one human at a time? Moreover, the aliens have invented a destructo-ray, but don't seem to have managed to invent, say, bombs. Or nuclear weapons. Or poison gas. Or any number of possible weapons that kill more than one person at a time. This makes the aliens fairly stupid, but we'll come back to that again.)

So Cruise runs into his house; he collapses on the floor, the kids shout questions at him, he ignores them. They ask him (among numerous questions) about all the dusty stuff he has in his hair. He looks horrified (acting!), and rushes into the bathroom and washes it off. (Let's review: no phone, no power, no cars, lots of alien war machines systematically trying to shoot everyone individually, but the water works? Spielberg is an asshole.) Now we come to one of the other major flaws (there are many flaws, but only a few are major): Cruise manages to tell his kids absolutely nothing for the entire movie. He tries, as hard as he can, to withhold every scrap of actual information and facts from the two kids.

This makes no sense.

I understand that kids aren't as well equipped for dealing with the world as adults. They have no wisdom, lack education, and their reasoning skills aren't up to par. In addition, between the ages of 12 to 19, they are insane (and it's an ugly sort of "Charles Manson" insanity, not happy kind). Thus, you don't give any responsibility to kids, and you make allowances when they screw up.

However, the earth has been invaded by aliens. Some allowances need to be made for the "safe cocoon" you keep the kids in until they can grow up and become adults. Since the most likely outcome of their puberty is to be turned into dust, you might just want to let them know what they can do to avoid this.

Not Cruise. After washing his hair, he announces that they will leave the house in "30 seconds", and that the "sullen teenager kid" is supposed to grab all the food he can, and Dakota is supposed to grab her suitcase (??). All the while, the kids are asking questions (remember: the kids haven't seen any aliens, or destructo-rays). Cruise yells at them to shut up, and not ask questions, and get moving. This is not a good parenting strategy. One could, reasonably, give them their orders and then give them a sort of rough approximation of what's going on ("Hey kids, we're going to go visit Mommy, 'cause a bunch of aliens are par-broiling Brooklyn) while they pack their various things. But no, Cruise wants them to know nothing, and nothing they will know.

Cruise and family leave the house, walk down the street (teaming with empty cars, explosions in the background, and mobs running around; Cruise tells the kids nothing), and steal the aforementioned "re-solenoided" Dodge Caravan. This seems to be the only car that works (at least until the military shows up much later). Cruise drives it to the McMansion that mom & stepdad live in (they aren't there; they are in Boston), but it's a much better place than Cruise's house (it has food, and no aliens). It looks to be on Long Island, or something. It's night, and Cruise puts the family to bed (after a scene where Cruise tries to feed his family peanut butter - Dakota is alergic, and has been since birth, but Cruise doesn't know this, thus re-affirming that Cruise is a BAD DAD. The family notes they aren't hungry, which causes Cruise to put his head in his hands and ask the kids to try to be nice to him, 'cause he's having a bad day. Cruise then ends up throwing a peanut butter sandwich against a window. In all of this, he has yet to tell them anything about aliens.). The kids ask, reasonably, why they can't sleep in their beds (this is the house they live in; they are stuck with Cruise only on odd weekends or something). Cruise, continuing the "tell them nothing" routine, announces that the basement is safer, "like in case of tornados". Dakota, reasonably, asks if tornados are likely (remember, Cruise still hasn't told them anything). Cruise yells again, and everybody beds down in the basement.

(Another Aside: The kids are idiots. I understand that they are operating in an information deficiency - caused by Cruise - but even the most moronic kid can figure out that things are seriously wrong. Instead of just managing, the kids go completely to pieces. Dakota starts whining and screaming - at one point she's in the Caravan, rocking back and forth in the back seat, screaming "I want mommy" - and the "sullen teenager kid" argues with Cruise all the time. Look, kids aren't adults - I understand that. But they aren't complete morons, either. If you are driving down a road filled with walking refugees, and you are in the only moving vehicle (nobody else, apparently, can replace a solenoid), you might get the clue that perhaps something very bad is happening. Screaming doesn't help (Dakota is old enough to know that mom isn't going to appear instantly, even if she wants it); arguing with Dad about how he wasn't around when they were growing up is fairly useless as well. However, these kids are morons. They do everything they can to make Cruise go insane, and don't help at all. Not once. Ever. Nope. (No, I take that back: "sullen teenage kid" drives for a while, but he screws that up by driving them right into an angry mob that takes their car.) Spielberg seems to have felt compelled to write a new genre of movies: the action-adventure-familiy-wholesome movie. We get to see aliens turn thousands into dust, while Cruise and kids re-learn how to love each other. Except, where's the love? Dakota is useless - Cruise literally carries her around for the last half of the movie - and the teenager runs off again. Cruise certainly jumps through hoops to save his family, but why? If he didn't really love them at the beginning of the movie - why that's true isn't clear - what happens to make him love them more? OK, fine, aliens, dust, destructo-rays, solenoids, etc. A bunch of CGI happens, but in terms of the characters, why does Cruise end up "loving" them? At one point "the sullen teenager" directly accuses Cruise of trying to get to Boston just so Cruise can dump the kids on mom and go back to not having any responsibilities. Cruise doesn't deny this. However, by the end of the movie, we're clearly supposed to believe that Cruise is a reformed man, who will do anything for his family. Where, exactly, did this transition occur, and what did the kids have to do with it? I mean, lots of stuff got blown up good, but how does that turn Cruise (the character) into a different sort of family guy? Where is the emotional story, as opposed to the CGI/alien/destructo-ray story? And this is why the kids were useless. They seemed, for Spielberg, to be almost like props: here are the kids - you must love them! Express your love by carrying them to Boston! That way the audience will know you love them! They had no logic, no self-preservation skills, and were only just emotional, whiny brats. The "sullen teenager" gets it into his head to "fight back", and tries - at every chance - to run away from Cruise and join up with any of the passing Army units. This is a 15 or 16 year old kid, with no military training. And one of the "emotional familiy scenes" is when Cruise actually lets him go run over the top of a hill into an ongoing battle. The dumb kid actually uses a line like "you have to let me be me" or something. And we're supposed to cheer when Cruise lets the idiot go run off and fight. I was amazingly disappointed when the idiot teenager showed up at the end, safe and sound in Boston - even beating Cruise there. Spielberg never has an intention of making real characters out of the kids, and you never gain any empathy towards them. I wanted them dead early on, and never changed my mind.)

Anyway, overnight a plane crashes into the house they are in (don't ask, it's irrelevant). This means they have to go. They walk outside and find mostly all sorts of things (houses, planes, cars, trees, etc.) blown up (and a few aliens in the distance, zapping away ferociously). They jump in the Caravan and head north, trying to find a way over the Hudson. Again, they seem to be the only civilian car moving (we see random convoys of military vehicles passing around them, but they never stop and never seem to be doing anything important). They get to a ferry site, but make the mistake of actually trying to drive the only functioning car in New York onto a ferry while surrounded by thousands of scared refugees. Needless to say, the mob takes their car (and because the it's an unlawful mob, they immediately fight over the Caravan, and wreck it). There is an actual working ferry at the site (how? why?), and Cruise attempts to get on. No, too full. Some alien warships appear, and the ferry tries to outrun the aliens to the other side, by casting off immediately and going full speed (note: just above walking pace) towards the other side.

Now, Cruise runs into his next door neighbor (at a ferry site in upstate New York? How did she get there? Who drove her, since Cruise had the only working car?). They shake hands (?), and seem to band together. Literally, thirty seconds later Cruise hops onto the ferry without the neighbor (he makes a half-hearted attempt to lead them on, but clearly cares only about his family). Why did Spielberg put this scene here? What's the point? What does it tell us about Cruise? What is it supposed to tell us? Spielberg remains an asshole.

Anyway, the ferry (now with Cruise on board), moving at the awesome pace of 3 miles per hour or something, gets attacked by aliens. Cruise and family fall into the water (it involves getting pushed over by a car that rolls into all of them. At the same time. More Spielbergian idiocy.) The ferry is pushed over. Cruise and familiy make it to the other side (they seem to be the only ones who do). The aliens appear on both sides of the river now, zapping away. Cruise makes his escape by running over a hill (remember, still carrying Dakota, and dragging "sullen boy").

(Another, another aside: I want to revist the whole "aliens zapping humanity into extinction" issue. It really bugs me. Lets make some assumptions: let say there are about 300 million Americans. The movie never makes clear how many alien warships show up. The most you see on screen at any one time is about six. Lets just guess that 10000 alien warships were assigned to the US alone. It could be more, it could be less. No way of knowing. 10000 is very, very many. Remember, each of those alien ships had to be brought here, and moving anything many light years takes time and energy. So 10000, over interstellar distances, just for the USA, is a whole bunch. Now, 300 million people divided by 10000 warships works out to be 30,000 US citizens per alien warship. That's how many people each warship must kill in order to de-populate the US. That may not seem like a lot, but remember: they have no bombs, or poison, or anything like that. They have to kill each person individually, with a destructo-ray. How long would that take? How long would it take you, personnaly, to stamp on 30,000 ants? It's clear you can kill each individual ant, and even 30,000 won't be able to harm you, but how much effort/energy will it take? Wouldn't it be easier with a can of Raid? Or some gas and a match? But no, all you have is your shoe. I ran some numbers. At an average of 5 seconds per death, killing 30,000 people (or stamping on 30,000 ants) would take you 42 hours - continiously, no pausing for rest. And remember, after the first few hundred, the ants (and the people) are going to start hiding from you, and you have to work a bit harder to find them. And after you wipe out one bunch, you have to locate the next bunch, and then begin stamping on them. Suppose your averge time per stamp increases to 10 seconds (now you are up to 82 hours), or 15 seconds (126 hours); remember - it's just an average. If it takes you only a minute to stamp out a whole anthill, but it takes five minutes to find the next anthill, the average starts to get longer and longer. And what if there aren't 10,000 alien warships; maybe there are only 1000. Multiply every number by 10: now it takes 1000 aliens at 5 seconds per 420 hours (17 and a half days - with no pauses at all) to wipe out the US. If the average drops to 15 seconds per smoosh for the 1000 aliens, now were at 1260 hours (52 days) to wipe out the US. This is a remarkably inefficient bunch of interstellar aliens.)

Anyhoo, Cruise and family set off walking for Boston. They come across a hill, with lots of soldiers charging up it and big explosions from the other side. "Sullen boy" goes charging off to do his patriotic duty (like the Army would want him), and Cruise tackles him to try and reason with him. Dakota is left standing under a tree. While Cruise is reasoning with "idiot sullen boy", a childless mother and father come across Dakota, and basically attempt to kidnapp her ("No one would leave their kid standing here alone..."). Lady, there are aliens zapping everyone they see; don't you have something more important to do than wonder about every kid you find especially if said kid is repeating over and over: "that's my dad over there - right there - and he'll be right back")? Spielberg remains an idiot. The "sullen teenage patriot doofus" actually convinces Cruise to let him go commit suicide (I'd love to hear what mom would think of this heartwarming decision), and Cruise rushes back to save Dakota from the marauding band of foster parents. The sullen teenager runs over the hill, which immediately explodes as the aliens wipe out everybody on the other side who was shooting at them. Cruise and Dakota run away.

Now we get to the worst part of the movie. Nothing else had made sense, but now we step off the deep end. Cruise and Dakota, running away, are called over by Tim "I'm Ray" Robbins, playing Jesse Duke, except a Jesse Duke strung out on crack and heroin. Robbins drags the two of them into his basement (just over the hill from the raging battle), and they all hunker down. Robbins starts muttering some nutty stuff about "attacking them from underneath, just like they did to us", and we are supposed to think he's generally crazy. Why Robbins didn't call any of the other couple of hundred people running around the hillside into his basement is never explained. Nor is why nobody else just stumbled into the basement, generally trying to get away from the furiously zapping aliens (none of them want to work for 52 straight days, so they're zapping for all they're worth). No, these three are left alone. Cruise figures Robbins is nuts, but doesn't want to head back out. So they hunker down. It's unclear how many hours (days?) they spend sitting in the basement. While this is clearly a basement (dirt floors and all), there are lights just outside the basement walls (in the dirt?) that give the place a sort of eery glow. I honestly don't remember much of the dialog in the basement: Robbins was supposed to be nutty, and Cruise was supposeed to be overwhelmingly concerned with Dakota, and the basement was being basementy. This scene's main point was spooky "hide from the alien". They are all sitting around when one of the alien warships parks overhead. The alien warship sends down a probe. This is some dumb-ass probe. It's a long snake-like thing. It has eyes at one end (and only one end). It wanders back and forth, as Cruise, Dakota and Robbins run from one end to the other of the basement, always staying one step ahead of the evil "alien" eye.

This was complete horseshit. Once again, interstellar aliens fail to have technology that humans invented, oh, thirty or fourty years ago. Like sensors beyond just visual: you know, infared, or radar, or microphones? No, the aliens are reduced to peering through TV screens, trying to figure out if someone is in the basement. Shit. Just set the place on fire. If anyone runs out, you can zap them. I no one runs out, then they either weren't there, or their dead now. Why this dicking around? Oh, and Robbins at one point threatens to take an axe to the alien probe-snake thing. Cruise pleads with Robbins (silently, with his eyes: Acting!) not to. The alien thingy goes away. Whew!

Anyway, everyone is all sitting around and shit, and some actual aliens (not the machines, or the probes, but actual in-the-flesh aliens) come down to look in the basement. Why they would do this, is completely beyond me. What was interesting in the basement? The aliens walked around, poked at some human stuff (seemed surprised by a wheel?) and then left. Robbins tried to shoot them, but Cruise and Robbins had a silent, grimacing fight about who got to hold the shotgun (Acting!!). After the aliens left, Cruise decides that Robbins is too crazy, and must be killed for the safety of Dakota and himself. So Cruise wanders into a room where Robbins is digging himself a rabbit-hole, the door shuts, we see Dakota's wide eyes, and then Cruise walks out. He seems depressed (Acting!), but safer.

They go to bed, but are woken up when one of those alien snake-probes finds them. Dakota is sucked up to the alien ship, and Cruise runs after her.

The whole Tim Robbins basement scene (about 20 - 25 minutes) was idiotic. What was the point (other than letting Spielberg play with CGI in a different context than blowing shit up)? It didn't tell us anything about Cruise, or Dakota, or Robbins (who remains irrelevant). We got to see aliens, but they didn't do anything. Dakota stared at them for a while while Cruise and Robbins acted/struggled over the shotgun. Big whoop. Of all the parts of the movie, this was the one where I was shouting at the TV the most: everyone was an idiot (Robbins at least was playing one, so he might be excused). The aliens should have burned the house down, or at least should have had 20th Century (earth) technology to figure out if anyone was there. The strange lighting, dumb acting, gloomy set, Dakota's wild-eyed moping and Cruise's anguished face (Acting!) combined to make a sucky-movie cocktail. It was just, dumb.

So Cruise throws a few hand grenades at the alien ship (the aliens have a "shield", so we know Cruise won't do any damage), and is taken as well. Why aliens need to kidnap humans is never explained. The movie implies that they need blood (there are some red "alien" plants growing around, and when alien ships get blown up, a bunch of red fluid comes out), but never actually says so. The aliens collect some number of people, but if they really need people and/or blood for fuel/food/whatever, then why do they spend so much time zapping all the people in sight? This is never really explained.

Cruise shoves a couple of hand grenades up the alien's lower organic intake valve (or whatever you want to call that opening it was sucking humans into), and it blows up. The humans all fall several hundred feet, and all walk away unhurt (oops, there goes physics again! Quick, look over there - Acting!). Cruise and Dakota wander into Boston, amidst the backdrop of a few alien warships blown up and fallen onto skyscrapers. Hmmmm. Something might be happening! Cruise and Dakota find a bunch of army guys wandering about, who say they have no idea how that alien got blown up, it just fell over. Hmmmmm. Clues. Another alien warship wanders up, and the army prepares to run away (that "shield" thing prevents anyone from actually harming the aliens). Cruise looks closer, and sees that there is a flock of crows circling/landing on the top of the alien (why would crows hang out on a moving metal thing that keeps zapping stuff on the ground?). Hmmmm. Cruise furrows his brow in thought (acting!). If the crows can land on the alien warship, then the shield is down! If the shield is down, the army guys can blow it up! Hey, guys, come back and blow the thing up!

The army guys launch a bunch of rockets into it (no shield!), and blow it up. It falls over, and an alien (actual one) falls out of the top, dead. The army guys declare the situation secure (without, you know, actually looking to see if, in fact, anything else might blow up, or if there might be a few more armed aliens in the big machine, but I digress), and then go have a Bud off camera.

Cruise carries Dakota up to Grandma's brownstone, and mom rushes out. "Sullen Teen" comes out and hugs dad (it is at this point you really, reallly wish he was dead). Everyone looks American, and proud, and familiy-like, and the movie ends.

However, I'm still confused. How did the aliens die? Yeah, I read the book years ago, and Morgan Freeman did a voice over while the sunset/sunrise/credits over Boston were rolling, explaining that it was these invisible little microbes that attacked the aliens and gave them a fatal head cold, or something, but that really doesn't explain anything. I mean, if they have mastered interstellar travel, don't you think basic college biology would be something they could handle? And don't give me that "It's how the story was" crap. H.G. Wells' story was in London, involved multiple days of organized fighting between invaders and defenders, and other sundry differences. In particular, H.G. Wells story didn't involve one father trying to reconnect with his family while on the run from the aliens; it was a more political novel about the British government/military trying to fight the aliens off. Thus, if Spielberg is going to make shit up, he can make up a more plausible ending. In particular, the whole "shield" thing makes no sense. If the aliens have a shield, why would they turn off their shields (hence, allowing themselves to get blown up)? Maybe they are dying of some disease, but their ships are still impervious. They may stop moving and frying humans, but we shouldn't be able to blow them up at all. Very, very odd; totally dumb, too.

The whole movie is a remarkable exercise in stupidity. How Spielberg read "War of the Worlds" and decided it would be better as a movie about familiy, with alien barbeque as a kicker, is beyond me. Maybe, since he's "Spielberg!", anything he craps out is taken as gospel. In this case, it was a steaming pile of crap, and someone should have told him. I can't really complain about the acting (it wasn't good, mind you), since the story would have dragged down anyone put in it. The fundamental problem was the story: it sucked. It made no sense, and trying combine some Hollywood-based version of America and Family, with H.G. Wells' classic (but dated) "War of the Worlds" just plain didn't work. You can remake Shakespeare into the 21st Century, because Shakespeare is a story of characters and love (or tragedy or comedy). "War of the Worlds", at least as envisioned by Spielberg, strips all the characters from the Wells original, and replaces them with a made-up story that clearly wasn't written by Shakespeare. The only part of this movie that bears any resemblance to Wells' original is the title, and some of the conceptual work of how the alien warships look. That's it. Nothing more. Its as if Spielberg made a movie about the dangers of nuclear weapons that involved nuclear terrorists, smuggling, a "war room", "precious bodily fluids" and called it "Dr. Strangelove." It might have something to do with that classic original, but not much. That would suck as much as this did, but this one got made, and I had to watch it.

Some reviews have argued that Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" is some sort of comment on Bush and the war in Iraq. I don't see it. OK, fine, the aliens invasion failed and Iraq isn't going well for us, but what does that have to do with Iraq? Moreover, the ideas and script for this were likely carved in stone long before Iraq became the topic it is today (maybe even before the invasion); Spielberg doesn't have prescience. In any event, what is the moral? Don't invade anyone? Don't invade anyone you don't share compatible germs with? Do some research before you invade someone? There is nothing political here, intended or not.

So where does this leave us? This movie still sucked. Cruise was his usual self: awful. Dakota didn't so much act as scream for the first hour, then do an impression of a wooden board for the second. The "sullen teenager" did a good acting job in terms of acting like, well, a sullen teenager. Given he looked about the right age, I don't think it was much of a stretch for him. Time Robbins acted suitably crazy, but if you can't do a good crazy, you shouldn't be an actor; he certainly had no flair in the role.

Don't see this movie. Really. This monumental post should fill you in on enough points that you can talk about it with some confidence; lie like a rug and steal some of the good lines (what, I'm going to somehow catch you?). As I noted last century, when this post began, this movie was slightly worse than Kingdom of Heaven: both suffered from approximately the same flaws:

Budget: $200 Million.
Actors: $50 Million.
Sets: $10 Million.
Director: $15 Million.
CGI: $124,999,999.63.
Script: $0.37.
Someone to check if the various scriptwriters were smoking crack and just making shit up as they went along: (a used Kleenex).

There was nothing wrong with this movie (director, cast, effects, etc.) that investing a few million into a serious author/writer and a few fact-checkers wouldn't have solved. Doing that wouldn't have created the greatest movie ever, but would have ended up creating something with a story that makes sense. It would have made a good B movie, like, say Jaws. Or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hmmm. Those seems familiar...

In closing: this sucks. It won't make you commit suicide (like Alexander), but it will make you shout at the screen in rage as characters keep doing dumb shit over and over again (like Troy). Avoid.

(Fuck you, Spielberg. You used to be good. Now you're a hack: your last seven movies you directed were: Saving Private Ryan, The Unfinished Journey (what the fuck was that?), AI, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and War of the Worlds. Saving Private Ryan was decent, but the rest sucked. Give it up.)

Posted by baltar at November 24, 2005 09:29 AM | TrackBack | Posted to Movies


Another classic! You should really put these on a sidebar as the best of Bloodless.

And quite apart from the movie itself - you're right, what has happended to Spielberg over the last decade? I'm one of the two dozen people in the country who actually liked AI, but even if I give him that, he's had at best a "mixed" decade.

Posted by: Armand at November 25, 2005 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, but that's the Jude Law effect. It worked on me to a little, but then wore off.

Posted by: binky at November 25, 2005 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

I have a rule about movies: Don't see anything that has Tom Cruise in it. This rule has served me well.

Spielberg's very much a hit-'r-miss guy. He made much better movies when he was single or unhappily married, before the *F*A*M*I*L*Y is *E*V*E*R*Y*T*H*I*N*G* bug got him. I think a new Movie Rule is called for: See nothing by Spielberg if it in any way involves anyone learning the value of family love.

Wonderful review. I'm going to check your archives to see what other turkeys you've eviscerated.

Posted by: CaseyL at November 26, 2005 11:42 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't paid much attention to Spielberg's marital/family status: that may have been a serious error. If however, that's the determining factor, then he may be lost for all time. I maintain my position that seven of the last six Spielberg movies (everything except "Saving Private Ryan") just sucked. Some more painfully than others, but they all sucked.

I reviewed Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven most recently. Armand does the serious movie reviews around here. I'm just a hack who swears creatively.

Posted by: baltar at November 26, 2005 11:55 PM | PERMALINK

"Anyway, everyone is all sitting around and shit, and some actual aliens (not the machines, or the probes, but actual in-the-flesh aliens) come down to look in the basement. Why they would do this, is completely beyond me. What was interesting in the basement"

Which question also applies to why the heck they would be on earth in the first place.

As to the shields dropping at the end because the aliens got sick, I suppose that could be handwaved away by saying the ships or their controls were somehow semi-organic and susceptible.

Posted by: Jon H at November 27, 2005 12:08 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I forgot to mention that little tidbit in the review; Morgan Freeman's voice over implied the aliens had been planning the invasion for thousands (or was it millions?) of years. Why they want Earth is never even remotely explained, hinted at, or anything.

And yes, they could have given just about any explanation for the shields collapse at the end, but Spielberg (or the writers) couldn't be bothered: "Book says all the aliens die, guess the shields are off now." Sheer laziness and, I think, contempt for the viewers (whom they figure won't notice).

Don't get me worked up again.

Posted by: baltar at November 27, 2005 12:21 AM | PERMALINK

"I haven't paid much attention to Spielberg's marital/family status"

Maybe it's like PJ O'Rourke. Single/divorced? Fun-loving, drug-taking, good-writing. Married? Boring prat.

Posted by: binky at November 27, 2005 01:07 AM | PERMALINK

Minority Report hardly sucked. A much better vehicle for Cruise/Spielberg.

Posted by: HH at November 27, 2005 01:11 AM | PERMALINK

And for that matter Catch Me If You Can was damned entertaining if overlong.

Posted by: HH at November 27, 2005 01:12 AM | PERMALINK

Spielberg is still with Kate Capshaw with kids last I checked.

Posted by: HH at November 27, 2005 01:12 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, I'm not wishing him or them otherwise. I don't want a family to split up and everyone be traumatized and miserable just to get some decent movies out of Steve.

I'm just pointing out the correlation :)

Posted by: CaseyL at November 27, 2005 03:00 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, and I've read the other reviews you linked to, Baltar. Read and giggled my way through them, nonstop. You are a Find, a Rare Find; and I'm bookmarking this blog :)

Posted by: CaseyL at November 27, 2005 03:22 AM | PERMALINK


I didn't hate it the way you did (almost viscerally!), but I was underimpressed. I was glad I waited for the DVD instead of paying major bucks at the theaters. And I'll never watch it again.

On the other hand, the next day I rented the George Pal version from decades ago (perhaps as an antidote; I loved it). Far more primitive effects (but I still think, far more effective overall), and closer to the original story. The point about germs (as mentioned, relatively new in HGW's day) was updated/explained nicely. There were few extraneous anythings, and certainly no alienated kids/ex-wives. THAT one I watched twice before returning it. It may go on my Christmas list.

I generally avoid remakes: few survive comparisons to the originals, and this was no exception. As for Spielberg: alas, it does seem his best days are behind him.

Posted by: Glen at November 27, 2005 09:58 AM | PERMALINK

I'll have to try the George Pal version of WotW; it might help get the taste out of my mouth. Someday (he says hopefully) Hollywood will understand that mountains of expensive CGI don't actually make up for a lack of story, and that you can make perfectly good movies (even sci-fi movies) with crappy effects, if the story and characters are interesting.

Spielberg hasn't figured that out.

As for "Minority Report" or "Catch Me If You Can", all I can say is that some people (lots, considering how much they made) liked them better than I did. However, I think we can all agree that those two (or any of his last half a dozen) aren't nearly as good as "Jaws" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

And I'm certainly not wishing Spielberg divorce or anything, just (as you say) noting the correlation. It does mean, however, that I'm much more suspicious of Spielberg's next movie (Munich).

Posted by: baltar at November 27, 2005 11:11 AM | PERMALINK
Spielberg seems to have felt compelled to write a new genre of movies: the action-adventure-familiy-wholesome movie.

Wasn't "The Day After Tomorrow" in that genre? Civilization is being destroyed, but father (with friends, who sacrifice themselves) spends the movie journeying hundreds of miles to see his son.

Posted by: KCinDC at November 27, 2005 11:15 AM | PERMALINK
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