Cold Comfort

War of the Worlds

a film directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a movie at once authentically unsettling and deeply nostalgic. The nostalgia is for scary, long-cherished fantasias concerning alien invasions and men from Mars as filtered through boyhood comic books and drive-in movies and tattered paperbacks, a whole century of cheap thrills summed up and transfigured in a return to their primal source, H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel. But Spielberg doesn’t try to reproduce the camp goofiness of Mars Attacks! or the video game hijinks of Independence Day: he wants us to care about what is happening in front of us, as if we were contemplating this scenario for the first time.

That would require a return to childhood, a return to the childhood of the genre to which he has devoted so much of his energy and to whose historical permutations he can (and in this movie does) allude almost reflexively. (In passing I registered fleeting, virtually subliminal hints of The Birds, Alien, Night of the Living Dead, The Day of the Triffids, Panic in Year Zero, Quartermass and the Pit, and The Poseidon Adventure, not to mention Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, whose raptor in the kitchen is paralleled here by aliens in the basement.) We would need to feel again how much our nostalgia is imbued with real terror, even if it was a terror at one remove, just distant enough that we were able to play inside it. War of the Worlds aspires to be a compendium of Wells and all that sprang from Wells, an all-in-one package that might serve as something like a child’s introduction to cosmic fear. It feels inevitable that the movie should come to revolve around the haunted face of a child, the inscrutably traumatized ten-year-old played (with an intensity in itself rather disturbing) by Dakota Fanning.

The world seems particularly expendable in Spielberg’s opening scenes when we see it from the vantage point of Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier, a New Jersey dockworker living in disordered solitude since his wife left him, and brimming with hostility at the prospect of being dumped with the kids while his ex goes off for the weekend with her new partner. (Cruise, in a performance more restrained than he has been giving on television lately, manages capably his character’s journey out of sullenness into the sustained urgency that the rest of the picture requires of him, but it is not a role that calls on much range.) Spielberg’s foray into kitchen-sink realism conjures up a mood of dead ends, of life as a continual round of taunting and bickering in prefab houses. Imagine the movie continuing in this vein without the arrival of the aliens. In the event—no surprise—the extraterrestrial invasion will provide a chance for some real quality time enabling Ray to discover that he does actually care whether his children live or die.

This family drama seems too calculated an interpolation, fulfilling too neatly the Hollywood requirement …

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