Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Spielberg's War

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Steven Spielberg’s new film War Of The Worlds is exceptionally gripping and surprisingly thought provoking. It starts with Tom Cruise, a divorced dad and New York docker, leaving work and picking up his kids for the weekend, and the film’s first surprise is Spielberg’s meticulous evocation of the blue-collar milieu (to get the Cruise stuff out of the way, he’s surprisingly belligerent through most of the film, and not notably loopy). He naps and goes outside, and the sky is filled by what seems to be a freak electrical storm that knocks out the power and kills the vehicles; soon after this dies down, the ground at a nearby crossroads starts trembling, cracks emerge in the concrete, and there emerges a vast three-legged machine, towering over the assembled crowds, and then attacking them with vaporizing beams. Cruise steals the only car in the neighborhood that works (a local mechanic experimented with the solenoids), grabs the kids and heads off toward his ex-wife in Boston. It’s a journey that – as he realizes the same experience and destruction is happening throughout America and perhaps the world - seems increasingly likely to witness the end of mankind.

Echoes Of 9/11

Spielberg is of course the continuing master of dazzling sequences, and unlike many other directors, he never allows technology or logistics to swamp a sense of human involvement. War Of The Worlds has as high a body count as any film ever made, but it never feels cold-blooded in offering up carnage for our pleasure. It takes a common strategy, forcing us into the viewpoint of a single semi-everyman protagonist, but there’s nothing idealized about the character or what he’s trying to protect. The graver the implications for the world and the more questionable the very value of survival, the more single-mindedly (even blindly) he focuses on his family. It’s not unlike last year’s The Day After Tomorrow, where Dennis Quaid trekked across several states, fighting the new Ice Age, in search of his daughter. But that film, more superficial in every way, aspired to God-like omnipotence – taking us throughout the world and to the inner corridors of power – rendering the focus on Quaid’s personal crisis banal and arbitrary. Spielberg never shows us anything more than Cruise sees for himself – he catches a few scattered TV images, but otherwise only has contradictory rumours and much first-hand trauma to inform his momentum. It’s an essentially intimate story that just happens to take place against the possible end of the world.

Which leads naturally to its echoes of 9/11, both in the broad depiction of urban routines suddenly shattered, and more specifically through shots of hastily assembled missing person posters, a close-up of Cruise covered in dust, and so forth. In this regard it seems meaningful that the machines emerge from under the ground, presumably having been buried thousands or millions of years earlier, lying latent until their alien masters arrive to activate them. In an America so neurotically fixated on a vaguely defined and shifting alien threat, and so correspondingly complacent about its own structural problems, it seems to me rather witty to depict the ultimate apocalypse as emerging from within, from the figurative bedrock of the homeland. Spielberg doesn’t particularly push the metaphor, but it’s there if you want to take it. Elsewhere, the film shows a hopelessly overmatched military, no sign whatsoever of effective organization or leadership, and as I mentioned, a set of “values” that seems highly likely to disintegrate under pressure.

Mocked Ending

It’s difficult to comment on the film without giving away the ending (already amply leaked elsewhere), so readers who would regard that as a spoiler should stop here. Cruise and his daughter make it to Boston, finding a city seeming surprisingly intact and populated after all we’ve seen. The huge “tripod” machines are teetering and breaking down of their own accord (the voice over tells us the aliens inside them were brought down by simple air-borne germ microbes, to which they had no immunity), He delivers the girl to the house, and there’s the family all waiting, including – most improbably – the son who broke away earlier and seemed dead for sure.

This ending has been widely mocked as an example of Spielberg giving in (once again) to sentimental instincts. But the finale features a shot of Cruise standing prominently alone (rather John Wayne-like, I thought), and it’s over so rapidly that if easy uplift were the only intention, it would seem botched. Whatever Spielberg’s true intentions, I think it’s possible to see this as an ironic undercutting of myths of continuity, or as a merely disillusioned capitulation to them. But if so, as with much of the film’s possible resonance, it’s probably easier to overlook than it should be. The film has spawned a lot of commentary on how Spielberg isn’t the director he used to be – Rick Groen in The Globe And Mail, for example, opined that “Catch Me If You Can was slight; The Terminal proved DOA; and War Of The Worlds is no more than a K-tel collection of his greatest hits, a technically skilled yet emotionally barren reminder of what he used to be when he was forging those indelible images.”

Spielberg’s Future

I've written in this vein myself in the past. Reviewing The Terminal last year, I said: “With the greatest directors, I’d suggest, you feel a measure of respectful striving in every frame. Spielberg’s films feel like they come too easy. Despite his often-extraterrestrial themes, his films remain earthbound; knowing no constraints on his resources, it’s as if he had never had to undergo the sweat and self-examination that might have molded his facility into art.” When you read that Spielberg is just starting a new film on the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist incident, and plans to have it out by Christmas, this line of thinking seems to be confirmed. War Of The Worlds was made quickly too, by blockbuster standards. But maybe speed can be his artistic liberation. I think Catch Me If You Can shows the most promising direction for Spielberg; a beguiling, light-footed film of subtle meaning, hinting at deeper philosophical preoccupations.

For sure, War Of The Worlds breaks no major new ground for the director. But it seems to demonstrate an increasing restlessness with easy formulae, and how many “iconic images” can we reasonably expect of one man anyway? The very choice of War Of The Worlds as a project indicates how he’s to some extent a prisoner of the system, and the terrorist film to come seems like a means of expiation. We’ve seen this before from him , when Schindler’s List and Amistad followed Jurassic Park and The Lost World in quick succession respectively. But War Of The Worlds seems much tetchier than the dinosaur films. How big a war is Spielberg fighting within himself, and will the right side win?

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