When aliens attack
On the 15th anniversary of its release, War Of The Worlds (PG, 111 minutes, HBO Go, Rating: 4 Stars) remains one of the best alien invasion movies ever made.
Since its release, visual effects technology has surged ahead and mega-budget superhero movies have replaced science-fiction spectaculars like War Of The Worlds as standard summer blockbuster fare.
Yet this loose adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 classic novel – helmed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise – looks and feels like a movie that could have been released this year.
By coincidence, among the new-to-streaming films is another clash-of-planets epic, Independence Day: Resurgence (2016, PG, 119 minutes, Netflix, Rating: 2 Stars), the follow-up to the 1996 hit. It is worlds apart from the Spielberg movie in quality and it is films like this that give sequels their bad name.
Spielberg is no newcomer to alien visitor stories. In Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), the strangers come bearing gifts of friendship and game-changing technology, not death rays.
War Of The Worlds is typical Spielberg, in how the central dynamic is a family weathering a crisis within while fighting attackers from without.
Unlike Independence Day, it is not an ensemble picture. Cruise’s divorced dad Ray Ferrier is front and centre. He is a classic Spielberg flawed dad: great at big acts of self-sacrifice, but awful at day-to-day nurturing.
On the run from Tripods – tentacled, building-size extermination machines – the Ferriers are just three more persons on roads choked with refugees. It’s an America that looks much like war-torn Europe, as seen in Spielberg’s Holocaust biopic Schindler’s List (1993), especially after it is revealed that Tripods transport humans in cattle pods strapped to their shells.
In a macabre version of the claw machine game, now and then a tentacle rummages in the pod for a random prisoner to feed into a slobbery pink sphincter. What happens to the victim is implied by the goo the Tripod ejects shortly after – a clever, non-obvious way of making the evil feel horrific and personal in a movie that is, surprisingly, rated PG.
Subtle is not director Roland Emmerich’s speciality. The baron of bombast and maker of disaster epics Midway (2019) and 2012 (2009) moves cardboard characters – such as the hotshot space pilot Jake (Liam Hemsworth) and his butt-kicking love interest Patricia (Maika Monroe) – with his typical disdain for story coherence or originality.
A major point of contrast between Spielberg’s view of humanity, especially of Americans, and Emmerich’s is the level of pessimism. In the post-invasion chaos, the Ferriers fight off looters and paranoid gun nuts. Emmerich’s united yet freewheeling Americans forge an alliance with the stiff-backed Chinese to repel invaders. If there is such a thing as a revisionist future, this is it.
Also added to Netflix a few weeks ago is young-adult comedy Rim Of The World (2019, PG13, Netflix, Rating: 2 Stars), a movie that personifies the report card phrase, “great starter, weak finisher”.
This “aliens versus pre-teens at a summer camp” flick is meant to be a goofy homage to 1980s kids’ adventure movies and can be viewed as the smuttier cousin of its Netflix stablemate, the science-fiction horror series Stranger Things (2016 to present).
Directed by McG (science-fiction thriller Terminator Salvation, 2009; action comedy Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, 2003), Rim Of The World opens with strong, self-aware quips that let audiences know this is not a movie that takes itself seriously.
That mood vanishes when the explosions start, replaced by scatological humour and, in a bizarre display of tone-deafness, sexual jokes about 13-year-old bodies.
In the creepy world made in McG’s image, letting the aliens win might make for a better ending.
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