June 29, 2005

"War of the Worlds"

The good news is that, in contrast to the latest Star Wars bloat-a-thon (and much else this year), it's very well made. The acting is fine, the dialogue doesn't clunk, the editing is not too fast and not too slow, the camera is pointing in the right direction, etc. Spielberg, unlike Lucas, gives you your money's worth of sheer competence.

Actually, the best contrast is to "Independence Day," in that Spielberg and Co. consciously decided to leave out almost everything that made that hit so wildly entertaining. We don't get to see any national monuments being blown up; Jeff Goldblum doesn't show up as some technical genius to explain what's going on; Will Smith doesn't punch out the aliens; Randy Quaid isn't around for comic relief; and there are no references to Roswell or other goofy UFO mythology.

"War of the Worlds" has a certain degree of artistic rigor and compressed intensity because Spielberg follows a quite restrictive rule: We only see what Tom Cruise's blue-collar regular guy sees. He's no superhero, and mostly he just runs away and tries to save his kids. As I pointed out in my recent cover story on Hollywood's politics, current filmmakers are strikingly into family values, at least of the family unity kind.

The downside is that while "War of the Worlds" is an exciting thrill ride and a decent family drama, it's not as much fun as "Indepenence Day." It's not even as interesting intellectually as "Independence Day."

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have written a couple of end-of-the-world blockbuster sci-fi novels, Lucifer's Hammer and Footfall, and they show just how intriguing alien attack and apocalypse can be. Unfortunately, "War of the Worlds" is sadly lacking in the kind of what-if interest in how to survive. It just doesn't give you much to think about, unlike Spielberg-Cruise's wrongheaded but consistently thought-provoking previous sci-fi film "Minority Report." Because of that, it will probably make as much money as "Minority Report" and "Vanilla Sky," Cruise's other highbrow sci-fi film, combined.

For example, if you are living in Newark, New Jersey, and giant alien tripods start smashing up your neighborhood, in which direction do you flee? I think the natural human response is: head for the hills, perhaps a coal mine in the Alleghenies where you can lay low for awhile.

Instead, Cruise's character heads for Boston, which makes no sense at all from a survivalist point of view. It only makes sense from the family drama standpoint. See, that's where his ex-wife is, and he assumes she's a lot smarter than him and will be able to figure out how to save the kids. And the reason she has to be in Boston, rather than in, say, a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, is because they got divorced because she's from the upper class (and Boston is a snobby-sounding city) and he's not, but they still care for each other even though they aren't right for each other.

Okay, but it's not as much fun as all the questions that come up in survivalist stories. Like in "Red Dawn," when the Soviet paratroopers are landing and some high school football players pile into a pickup truck and head for the Rockies, and they stop for 90 seconds to stock up for the winter at a sporting goods shop. You've got a minute and a half to grab everything you'll need to survive and fight: What do you take?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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