After their successful collaboration on 'Minority Report,' Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise reunited for this contemporary take on The War of the Worlds. Using plenty of menacing, thunderous CGI effects and the always impeccable photography of Janusz Kaminski ('Schindler's List,' 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'Jerry Maguire'), this movie is a much bleaker, more somber reimagining than the 1953 version that many are familiar with. Even for Spielberg, this sci-fi flick has scarier thrills and terror than it does the sense of adventure and wonder often expected from the legendary director, bringing this blockbuster closer to the level of a horror feature. This modernized adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel is an explosive and exciting sci-fi actioner, with some underlining themes writhing beneath its straightforward plot.
'War of the Worlds' seems to live up to the possibilities the horror genre affords, with a great deal more going on than a simple alien invasion sci-fi story. The original novel has for many decades been seen as a commentary on the political climate during turn of the century England, particularly as a type of criticism towards British imperialism. Indeed, the story of a foreign power colonizing an ill-prepared people is shown in a disapproving light, turning the colonizers into victims of their own selfish pursuits. As an extension to this, the novel explores the social fears of the Victorian era, of a people whose sense of security and certainty is put to the test. There are even moments when characters confront their foolish notions of superiority and ego.
It's this aspect of the H.G. Wells tale that the filmmakers have tapped into and placed in a contemporary society whose members also seem secure in their understanding of the world. But the shock and awe tactics of the Martian occupation makes known the anxieties and apprehensions of living in this modern era. I'd like to think that Spielberg's film is a journey through the tense and terrifying emotions of fear and distress we experienced moments after the shocking attacks of September 11th, 2001. Those events exposed, if only for a little while, the fragile and vulnerable state of a nation thinking no harm could come its way. To some, the events even revealed our failure to recognize and appreciate the good things which surround us, things we should hold valuable above all else, like family.
Because it stays focused on exploring these emotions within the story of a man realizing his failure as a father, the superb collaborative script by Josh Friedman and David Koepp ('Carlito's Way,' 'Spider-Man,' 'Ghost Town') is one my favorite parts of the film - next to the direction and cinematography. It's so succinctly written that everything we need to know is shown in the first fifteen minutes, flawlessly. Ray (Tom Cruise) is an average, blue-collar guy living an easy-going bachelor life. He's just a guy who talks to his boss with a carefree attitude and drives his classic Ford Mustang. Of course, we quickly learn he's a single father in a complicated and strained relationship with his two children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin).
The rest of the story follows the changes in Ray's personality as he accepts his role as a responsible parent. Spielberg then takes these elements and shows the unfortunate disconnect the character has with his children. In one of the most expressive scenes of the film, Spielberg reveals the tense and awkward family dynamics through a simple game of catch. While Robbie shows off his Boston Red Sox cap and Ray wears one for the New York Yankees, a popular, father-and-son pastime suddenly turns into an uncomfortable confrontation. At about the same time his son's defiance becomes abundantly clear, Rachel makes known her independence, acquiring a taste for exotic food and no longer needing her father to remove a splinter. Naturally, this is all interrupted by a freak thunderstorm which, unbeknownst to anyone, signals the arrival of the aliens.
It's at about this point that Spielberg infuses 'War of the Worlds' with a language that's evocative to the feelings many shared during the 9/11 attacks, with suggestive, haunting imagery that's chillingly and regretfully familiar. Like sleeper cells, the pods were hiding beneath everyone's noses all along, patiently waiting for the right moment to reveal themselves and their agenda - to attack and terrorize. Random articles of clothing fall from the sky like floating paper as terrified people run for safety, unsure if they will survive. When Ray finally returns to his house and his panicked kids, Rachel asks about all the dust covering his face. Looking in the mirror, he shockingly realizes that he is covered in the ashes of humans. The entire sequence only takes a few minutes, but they are terrifying ones.
Despite his failed relationship, Ray then becomes a protective father - a man doing everything possible to shield his youngest child from the horrors of violence and death. All the while, he witnesses the selfless courage of his son and is confronted by Robbie's sudden sense of patriotism. As a father, he must learn to let go of his son and allow him to make his own choices. If we are left with any persistent questions as to the purpose or intent of the alien invasion, it may only be because it's so very difficult to understand the reasons and motivations behind acts of terror.
For me, the one questionable point of the film is the Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) character. The scenes in the basement seem a bit bizarre - even out of place - and it bogs down the narrative flow a bit. I have to admit that even in these parts, there seems to be more going on, but I have yet to figure it out. The former ambulance driver appears to serve some necessary component in the overall plot, since the character is a surprisingly good combination of the artilleryman and the clergyman from the original novel. Maybe he works as a forewarning of fanaticism and the way in which fear can ruin rational judgment. I would hate to believe he serves no function at all while the rest of the film is so well thought out and suggestive.
I don't mean to imply that the film harbors any political undertones just because certain scenes appear reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks. In the end, of course, it's easy to dismiss all of the above as silly notions and of me reading into something that's not there. These are simply the random thoughts that cross my mind whenever I watch 'War of the Worlds.' And they're the reason I am so fascinated and involved every time. With incredible visual effects creating utter terror and pandemonium, Spielberg's sci-fi disaster flick still works on the level of sheer spectacle alone. But personally, I would rank this dark reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic as one of the director's most impressive efforts - one which seems true to the deeper, more perceptive intentions of its source.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'War of the Worlds' invades Blu-ray courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment and DreamWorks Pictures. The Region A, BD50 disc is housed in an eco-case keepcase and commences at startup with skippable trailers for 'The African Queen' and 'Minority Report.' Once at the main menu, viewers are greeted by the same standard selection of options, similar to those seen on the two-disc special edition DVD.
Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds' comes to Blu-ray with a heavily stylized and specific look that doesn't exactly serve as eye-candy, nor will it ever be used for demo purposes. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) shows Kaminski's cinematography as it should appear. The heavy grain structure is intact to produce a gritty, cheerless film. while the use of diffusers and filters create an oversaturated picture with a weak contrast balance. As a result, depth of field is significantly affected, and the image is much softer than would be expected. In fact, it won't stack up to some of the best we've seen on the format, past and present. Whites are often overblown, which takes its toll on the finer details, and colors tend to bleed in almost every scene. Still, the video is fairly clean and crisp, all things considered. Although the palette is greatly restrained, primaries seems bright and accurate to the intentional look.
On a more positive note, blacks levels are richly rendered and inky, giving shadows a deep and profound appearance. While it's a mostly two-dimensional presentation, the transfer displays a strong improvement in resolution and clarity as opposed to its standard def counterpart. I'm sure some will likely moan a bit about the video not being the sharpest, but it's an excellent image with good visibility of background details as long as one gives some thought to the cinematography. It may not compare to the best we've seen in recent Spielberg catalogs, but the picture quality of this Blu-ray appears to be faithful to what the filmmakers intended.
For the last few years, many home-theater enthusiasts have been using the DVD of 'War of the Worlds' to show off their system, especially for the bass. Now that it arrives on Blu-ray, both fans and hobbyists alike can push their equipment to the limits with this highly aggressive, reference-quality DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. I imagine many will hear neighbors complaining when watching this.
There is much going on in the sound design at any given time, mostly subtle atmospherics to generate an immersive soundscape. When things turn for the worst, the action maintains excellent clarity with superb, far-reaching dynamics that never overwhelm the well-prioritized, always intelligible vocals. The whole front soundstage is sprawling with random noise to give the lossless mix a demanding but very engaging presence. The rear speakers deliver distant ambient effects with awesome lucid movement that sometimes feels as though certain objects are right in the room. Directionality and pans are some of the best I've ever heard, with exhilarating, life-like transparency.
The real showstopper is, of course, the low-frequency output, and unless something went terribly wrong, there was never any concern that 'War of the Worlds' on high-res audio would disappoint in that regard. The movie has a breathtaking, chest-pounding bass line that is second to none, reaching the sort of lower depths that will really test the capabilities of any subwoofer. The incredibly powerful and spectacularly responsive bass is phenomenal, with convincing authority adding a heightened level of intensity to the film. The pods emerging in Ch. 5 will surely be a highlight and the go-to scene for demo purposes. In this respect, I recommend warning neighbors before watching this BD or at least, inviting them over to join you, because this is one wall-rattling mix that's more fun when played loud.
Paramount Home Entertainment ports over the same assortment of special features found on the two-disc special edition DVD. It's a healthy and fairly extensive set of supplements, covering nearly everything that needs to be known about the production behind 'War of the Worlds.'
Steven Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds' is an exciting and thrilling sci-fi actioner, showing how a smart and gripping disaster feature should look like. This modernized adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel is a dark and somber revision not usually expected of the legendary director. As a result and with the use of some suggestive imagery, the Tom Cruise-starrer reveals a brain behind the pandemonium. This Blu-ray edition of the film arrives with a highly-stylized picture that works as a complement to the narrative, rather than eye-candy; however, the audio presentation is pure reference quality, with one of the most impressive low-frequency effects we've seen on the high-def format. The supplemental package is the same seen on the two-disc DVD edition, and it's a good one. All things considered, 'War of the Worlds' is highly recommended and a worthy purchase for fans of the movie.