Skipped this one because it’s by Spielberg? The 9/11- inflected take on H.G. Wells’ classic reproduces thrills from the book not captured in George Pal’s 1953 atom-age update. For this reviewer it was a big surprise — a Tom Cruise movie in which he plays an appropriately terrified character instead of his annoying big star persona. Nervous audiences loved this in 2005… it actually generates some good scares. Seen on a good Ultra-HD setup, those scares translate well to home video.
War of the Worlds
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital
Paramount Home Video
2005 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 116 min. / Street Date May 19, 2020 / 29.99
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins.
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Film Editor: Michael Kahn
Original Music: John Williams
Written by Josh Friedman, David Koepp from the book by H.G. Wells
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Paula Wagner, Colin Wilson
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds is almost a mirror image of his 1977 sci-fi Sense of Wonder epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Instead of ethereal cereal happy-folk from beyond the stars, an American family is confronted with old-fashioned H.G. Wells invaders that disintegrate first, and suck blood later. In an interview later in his career, Spielberg said that he no longer identified with the premise of CE3K: Roy Neary ditches his job, his wife and his kids for the thrill of a one-way fling into the cosmos. Becoming a father (and witnessing the new insecurities of Perpetual War politics) clearly changed Spielberg’s outlook. In his War of the Worlds (no ‘The’), struggling to protect one’s kids and just make it through another day is the REAL heroic endeavor. Spielberg’s new paterfamilias is no longer an immature fanboy.
It’s always good news when a Hollywood sci-fi remake avoids disaster. Spielberg ignores gee-whiz, bigger-explosions clichés and instead pumps new energy into an established genre with this intelligent re-think of the original H.G. Wells book. That diary-like account of life under the heel of Martian invaders anticipated 20th century wars fought with ever-more terrible weaponry This version has an underlying political agenda, with a script that makes numerous references to the use of overwhelming force to impose a military occupation. Our complacent and secure homeland receives a dose of the terror routinely suffered by much of the rest of the world. On one level, it’s less about monsters from space than about chickens and where they roost.
The action begins in a New Jersey shipping yard. Divorced dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) resents being encumbered with his resentful children while his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) vacations with her new husband. Young Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is impatient, and the resentful teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) disobedient. Then an overwhelmingly powerful alien force attacks, and Ferrier finds himself responsible for two kids that don’t really trust him. Fleeing in a stolen car, they join a tide of humanity being swept before an onslaught of colossal walking tripods armed with unopposable heat rays. After narrowly surviving a number of close encounters with the conquerors, Ray and Rachel are separated from Robbie and hole up with an emotionally unstable survivalist, Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Surrounded by an invader encampment, they must lay low while alien surveillance probes investigate their basement hideout.
How does one film a classic whose original ideas have been raided time and again by other movies? The lavish invasion-soap Independence Day (1996) looted the entire genre. Its concept of giant spaceships parked over major cities was stolen wholesale from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a classic that was made into an okay TV miniseries in 2015. Many things in Roland Emmerich’s film were purloined from the 1953 George Pal version, including copycat staging for an attempted atom-bombing of an alien ship. Occasional awesome destruction scenes remain Independence Day’s only lasting thrill.
Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is actually closer to the spirit of H.G. Wells’ source novel than the George Pal update. As in the 1898 book we know only what our hero Ray Ferrier knows and share his fear of what he doesn’t. Wells includes a sequence told second-hand, as a story-within-a-story. A ferryboat’s escape across the English Channel is cut off by a Martian fighting machine that wades into the offshore shallows. Before it can turn its heat ray on the ferry, the tripod is challenged by the most formidable Earth weapon of 1900, an iron dreadnaught. The alien machine regards the charging battleship for a moment, wondering if it has been outmatched.
The book’s channel ferryboat becomes the movie’s Hudson River Ferry, combined with another book episode in which the narrator finds himself on a lonely road at night, caught between two war machines. Wells’ ferry passengers escape thanks to the suicidal attack of the battleship, but not so Spielberg’s helpless refugees, who are drowned, harvested for blood and driven to their deaths by the alien heat rays.
The new heat ray is an electronic zapper that freeze-dries victims with concentrated microwaves. Unlucky targets grimace in pain and then explode into powder, leaving their clothing flapping in the heat-draft. It’s instant traumatic cremation: Ray Ferrier becomes thoroughly dusted with powdered humanity. The chilling mass disintegrations are almost as sanitary as the ‘electro-defragmentizer’ of Our Man Flint, and conveniently bloodless. Without a single bloody corpse in sight, Spielberg’s show circumvents the censorship vigilance of the MPAA. Pretty Slick Trick, there.
Josh Friedman and David Koepp’s screenplay is a taut first-person ordeal. It takes all of Ray Ferrier’s strength just to stifle his growing panic. He never really gets the big picture — a full day into the invasion he’s still unaware that hundreds of alien fighting machines are sweeping the nation, not just the one he has seen. In other words, working-guy Ray is subjected to the terror routinely perpetrated on entire populations elsewhere in the world — instability, insecurity and the possibility of random slaughter without warning. To the Martians, we humans are merely a problem of pest extermination.
Spielberg’s alien machines emerge from below ground, where they were buried perhaps thousands of years ago. That reminds us more than a little of Nigel Kneale’s brilliant Quatermass and the Pit. It also evokes the Deep Cover paranoia associated with the attack of 9/11/2001. The writers repeatedly compare the invaders to an army of occupation. The insane survivalist Harlan Ogilvy harps on this issue, and Ray’s son Robbie is introduced ignoring a school assignment on the French occupation of Algeria. Occupations never work, the film intones, a debatable issue that depends on how one defines aggressive occupation, colonial husbandry, or just plain Business as Usual.
Spielberg never gives us an all-out pitched battle, just the alien rampage and glimpses of ineffective armed resistance. The one major conflict mostly happens ‘over the hill.’ Some fans were disappointed when the movie didn’t deliver the standard exhilarating battle sequence. Spielberg said that aliens destroying famous landmarks had been done to death in movies. He wanted to focus on the Ferriers’ personal ordeal, not Star Wars eye candy.
The new fighting machines retain Wells’ vision of awesome tripods that tower into the sky. The CGI animators have found a way to disguise the physical problem of a tripod walk cycle. If the design has a weakness it’s that the tripods seem to be made of sheet metal and jet turbine parts. Spielberg does borrow some visual ideas from earlier movies. The fighting machine seen underwater alongside the ferry boat reminds us of the attacking Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The corkscrew motion of the pavement in the Hoboken street intersection evokes the book’s unscrewing meteor hatch from the book, as does the vortex in the river. Sci-fi fans might also be reminded of the preferred tunneling method of The Mysterians. Remember the slice of Japanese landscape that revolves under an unlucky tank, like a record turntable?
The book’s narrator is almost buried alive when a Martian cylinder lands atop his hiding place, a wrecked house. The movie splits this scene in two. Ray’s wife’s house is partially wiped out when a jet plane (presumably shot down) crashes into it. Surprisingly few corpses are on board — does that mean that the human-harvesting tripods came and went in the night? (I’m told that the plane crash site’ has been part of the Universal Studios tram tour since the movie came out.) Later, Ray and Rachel voluntarily hide out with Harlan Ogilvy, who cracks up and threatens to reveal their presence to the invaders. In the book, the companion is a terrified churchman, who becomes unhinged when a metallic Martian tentacle explores the hiding place. In both film versions, the tentacle becomes a remote spy probe.
Wells’ Martians were octopus-like vampires, and Spielberg’s invaders suck human blood as well. The giant fighting machines collect victims in going-to-market baskets, similar to the robot-roundup scene in Artificial Intelligence A.I.. Spielberg also includes the original book’s infestations of Martian ‘Red Weeds,’ which spring up everywhere as a fallback alien food source. The crimson vines are filled with a fluid resembling blood. H.G. Wells’ Martians also employed poison gas, which only found widespread use later in WW1. The book suggests even more horrors of future wars. It is predicted that the Martians will eventually keep a few humans alive, to serve as Judas-trackers to locate and eliminate stubborn human holdouts.
Sci-fi ‘force field shields’ have been around so long, it’s likely that some people think such things are real. Koepp and Friedman’s screenplay rejects the usual ‘alien battle’ clichés celebrating U.S. military firepower and heroics. Our soldiers bravely attack even with weapons already proven ineffective. That angle isn’t much different than the 1953 version, which implies that the world’s combined armed forces are completely defeated. Perhaps War of the Worlds ’05 didn’t take the ‘occupying army’ parallel far enough. If monsters from outer space were the foe, our soldiers would try any and every attack plan, no matter the risk. We’d have volunteer suicide bombers, too. That’s what patriots do when their land is occupied.
Spielberg retains the original’s premise of victory through bacteria, which H.G. Wells may well have included to placate the churchgoing public that had protested his The Island of Doctor Moreau as Darwinian blasphemy. Although God is still mentioned in Morgan Freeman’s bookend narration, the concluding tone is simple Thanksgiving instead of divine intervention. Perhaps the aliens will get the proper vaccinations before their next invasion. The surprise deliverance has been an unfortunate legacy in Sci-Fi films that found insultingly facile means to vanquish their monster menaces (see The Day of the Triffids). Nigel Kneale pulled a clever reversal on this trend by adding a Wellsian deus ex bacilli twist to his witty adaptation of Wells’ own First Men in the Moon.
War of the Worlds isn’t perfect. The Martian humanoids themselves aren’t all that interesting. The scenes with Tim Robbins are too predictable, and some of Ray Ferrier’s third-act derring-do gets a bit thick. But aside from the ‘hand grenade up the alien wazoo’ scene, Ray Ferrier spends most of the film running in terror and cowering just like everybody else. Tom Cruise’s arrogant jerk movie persona is for once subordinated to a story, so we don’t mind it when he dodges more than his quota of heat rays, flying cars and exploding buildings.
Ray, Rachel and Robbie are good at keeping their heads down and staying clear of the mass stampede around them. All of the performances are very good, especially Dakota Fanning’s impressively detailed Rachel. Ms. Fanning conjures a dozen different kinds of scared, from simple shock to exhausted desperation. She convinces as a kid who wants to hear her favorite lullabye from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You know, from when she was little.
Spielberg doesn’t go overboard pandering for audience sympathy, as happens in too many movies. Even his best post- E.T. pictures have at least one scene where he steps over the line. To take one example, his basically good Catch Me If You Can is marred by a cloying ‘staring-in-a-Christmas-window’ scene that would put Norman Rockwell off his feed. This could have been a Feel-Good invasion where good old Dad rebuffs those nasty critters from space, so all can eat at McDonald’s and play Goofy Golf.
Some fans complained that the final reunion in Boston is just such a Spielberg happy-happy dealbreaker. I disagree. War of the Worlds’ overwhelming mood of panic and terror places it far in the plus column. One friend told me he wouldn’t see the film because it was too close to his discomfort about 9/11. Maybe audiences love movies about horrible jeopardy and mayhem, but not when they’re insecure, and when the people being victimized are too much like them. Conversely, I suppose one could argue that ‘liberals’ like myself are political masochists: ‘punish us some more.’
The majority of doomsday scenarios pushes the exploitation button and endorse ruthless brutality. And even the most civilize ask if ruthlessness is a regrettable necessity: Panic in Year Zero!, No Blade of Grass. I believe Spielberg’s film is a responsible and useful fantasy. Even though Ray Ferrier is forced to kill in cold blood, the main message of this survival fantasy is that compassion and sticking together are essential for survival too. A great deal of blind luck doesn’t hurt, either.
Paramount’s 4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital of War of the Worlds gives the movie an impressive boost, to theater-grade presentation quality. Ultra HD and 4K encoding isn’t only a doubling of resolution. These newer 4K transfers also extend the contrast range quite a bit. The HDR ‘High Dynamic Range’ element ups the ante on both ends of the contrast spectrum, producing whiter whites and blacker blacks but also a full gradient of white to black and a far wider portion of the color spectrum than standard HD. We see more detail and color in the shadows. At the same time, some of the brighter areas are ‘quieted down’ a little. When it’s done just right we get a far more dimensional, convincing, richer image.
How much better does War of the Worlds look in 4K, specifically? The improvement is predictable but nonetheless pronounced. The Blu-ray is satisfactorily sharp and looks fine. But the image on the 4K UHD is decidedly sharper, with much more resolution — it ‘snaps’ into focus. The added detail makes the film grain much more evident. Some might not care for that; some may love it. The colors become more ‘realistic,’ less poster- like in 4K. But the contrast and above all the clarity and sharpness are what one notices first.
The video is encoded with DolbyVision. The main difference between DolbyVision and the earlier HDR10, just offhand, is that DolbyVision enables almost no adjustment of the various settings usually available for picture. No user fiddling — it’s mostly locked-in: “We will control the horizontal, We will control the vertical…” DolbyVision is a much more robust system than HDR10, and can deliver even brighter brights and darker blacks. HDR10 is basically the cheapie version competitors rushed to market to compete.
High-end 4K home setups with 80″ screens will be able to produce a theater-quality experience. War of the Worlds seen theatrically seemed to have a slight granularity and texture added overall. I remember thinking at the time that Spielberg perhaps chose that slightly subdued look to affect a slightly less punchy, documentary-like look. Either that, or the granularity was added to make the live action better match the digital effects. On 4K UHD, the image never looks degraded — the film’s look is consistent.
The audio is pretty incredible, with all of these low-frequency hums and vibrations used to give the alien machines added presence. The Blu-ray was already sensational in that respect, with a complicated mix, lots of separation, etc.
The second Blu-ray disc included appears to be identical to Paramount’s 2010 Blu-ray release. It contains the same extras, including the lengthy production docus by Laurent Bouzereau. It’s all done in a promotional style. We learn that the show is a miracle of cooperation and harmony. There are regular infusions of Tom Cruise, Spielberg and little Dakota Fanning being charming, along with harmonious producer-director confabs that might well be staged. The director’s piece on his relationship with Wells’ War of the Worlds makes for a very good featurette. Other specific featurettes cover the pre-visualization and the design process behind the aliens and their machines.
As is usual some of the best content addresses the methodology behind the effects. We learn that at the first alien encounter, the cracks and crumbles on the street under the bystanders were all added in post-production. It’s really impressive, even considering that I’m not as curious about CGI visuals, as I once was about old-fashioned movie special effects. The terrific results are clearly the work of brilliant designers and computer artists. But when 600 semi-anonymous visual artists are employed, how can one know who the key creative contributors were?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
War of the Worlds
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Supplements: Many production and promotional featurettes, galleries, trailers, etc..
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson