Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Warring Worlds at the Drive-In

I don’t know from video games, but it seems to me that if you keep on surviving all the levels, and then ultimately win the game because it’s rigged that you can’t lose, you’re gonna think you’ve been cheated. Because, really, where is the challenge?

We went to the drive-in last night to catch “War of the Worlds” and a second screening of “Batman Begins.” I only want to mention that “Batman Begins” holds up a lot better on second viewing than I would have thought. The montage jump cuts while maintaining dialogue during Bruce Wayne’s training sequences with Ra’s Al Ghul were especially impressive. I still have problems with the overall shape of the movie, but the technique is so strong that it carried me along for the ride, especially knowing exactly what was going to happen next.

Anyway, “War of the Worlds” is pretty much exactly like a video game. There is the obligatory modern-day blockbuster action pic ten-to-fifteen minute opening to establish characters, and then we’re off to the races, as the heroes run and jump over a seemingly endless parade of CGI-created frights. The catch is, if you’re playing the role of Tom Cruise in this game, you’ve got nothing to worry about because through no particular effort or strength on his part, save an overwhelming desire to keep his daughter safe, Cruise is incapable of being harmed.

Here’s the set-up. Cruise is a divorced dad with a teen-age son and a pre-pubescent daughter. The son’s character is virtually an afterthought. They figured he should be rebellious, should hate the father for abandoning his family, and yet should be incredibly gentle and aware and loving when it comes to his little sister. Not so gentle and aware that he can’t abandon her from time to time when the writers felt like taking him off screen, but certainly close enough to her that he is the only one who can calm her down – through some sort of family therapy method of finding a safe place – when the situation warrants.

Tom’s ex-wife is pregnant, and she has a new husband, so we’re not going to have a family reunion in this flick. The little girl is alternately wide-eyed Spielbergian innocence and prototypical wise-beyond-her-years smart kid who can analyze her father’s mis-steps in trying to establish a closer relationship with her brother. Then, the aliens attack, so let’s roll.

Metaphorically, it’s impossible to avoid any 9/11 comparisons for this movie. When H.G. Wells wrote the original novel some 100 years back, he was trying to dredge up some nightmare scenario far removed from reality. It was impossible for attacks on civilization to come from out of nowhere. Then, when Orson Welles updated it for his famous 1939 radio broadcast, he wisely moved the story to New Jersey, because America seemed far more impervious to attack at that time than England. Guess what? Now, we don’t feel so invulnerable. So, when we see an army of giant tripods blowing up buildings and frying frightened humans, it’s only natural to ask if this is an act of terrorism. We don’t need to consider sources from off-planet to frighten us. We’ve got our own boogey-men right here, thank you very much.

The problem is, Spielberg doesn’t want to do anything with the metaphor. He has to know he’s tapping into the zeitgeist of Us vs. Them, but he wants to pretend this is just an old-fashioned scary movie, where all we have to do is root for the hero. (And to make sure we root our hardest, the hero has to protect the innocence of his ten-year-old daughter. At least twice, maybe more, he makes sure to cover her eyes so she can pretend something particularly horrible isn’t happening. One of those horrors just might be Cruise’s character killing another human. Of course, Spielberg makes us close our eyes, too, keeping that action off screen as he concentrates his camera on the blindfolded little girl pushing her hands tightly against her ears.)

As Cruise frantically huffs and puffs his way in front of the CGI screen displaying streets falling apart behind him, cars turning to ashes, and really huge alien technology chortling along with some minor key leitmotif, the viewer has to understand this much. Steven Spielberg isn’t going to set up a little girl as the single most perfect representation of humanity without making sure she pulls out of this scrape in one piece, nor is he going to bump off her father. So, all suspense is completely lost once the aliens attack. All we will see is what happens around Cruise, and he will always be just far enough out of range of destruction to keep himself scratch-free. I kept expecting him to pull out a Maxwell Smart line like “Missed me by that much.”

I’ll give Spielberg this. He makes the little girl be a big whiner, and she screams like the dickens every time the blue screen comes up behind her. Cruise redeems himself as a father figure when she asks him to sing a lullabye and all he can come up with is “Little Deuce Coupe.” What? They don’t have “Rock a Bye Baby” in scientology?

Some of the special effects look pretty cool. But, there’s never any convincing reason as to why Cruise and his kids should survive, except that they are the focus of the film. Eventually, the boy decides he has to go with the army to help fight the creatures, but that just means we don’t get to see how he makes his way back to Mom’s house for the happy reunion at the end. (Like I’m spoiling that for you!? This particular Odyssey is all about the trip, folks; the last five minutes is perhaps the most anti-climactic sequence in movie history.)

Hey, speaking of the army, I noticed that a) there were enough troops in America not shipped over to Iraq or Afghanistan, which was probably lucky; b) the army troops were all completely committed to fighting and keeping order, with absolutely no hint of fear or loss of discipline; and c) the troops were, as far as I can remember, 100% white males. In fact, I can’t remember too many African-American, and absolutely no Asian or Hispanic faces in the whole film.

All blockbuster movies are automatically more fun if you see them at the drive-in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t quibble a bit. “War of the Worlds” bugged me on a lot of fronts. I didn’t like the idea that we were supposed to feel good at the end because Cruise and his entire family escaped completely unharmed while millions, perhaps billions of other people were dead and half the world was destroyed. I didn’t like the fact that Spielberg did nothing to update the original microbe destruction of the aliens; Wells was wrong that humanity was immune to all microbes but the aliens wouldn’t be. Why couldn’t the aliens have turned out to die as a result of ingesting, I don’t know, humans who had been taking the AIDS cocktail? This movie could have used an ironic conclusion like that.

I did actually like the idea of avoiding any official explanations for events. The way that people throughout the movie gave contradictory reports of what was going on was nicely ambivalent, and reflected the fact that Spielberg really wasn’t interested in the plot as much as in creating enough video game thrills to get to the end of the picture. He did that, alright. But, I’ve hated this guy since 1977. He’s never struck me as capable of understanding the admittedly nicely composed images he puts on the screen, and he’s not starting at this late date. “War of the Worlds” isn’t devoid of entertainment value, but oh, how much better it could have been with a little bit of thought.


Blogger Craig Kurtz said...

Blast from the blast. Interesting. I'm not sure you're writing about my favorite topics but I dig the way you are writing. You've been at it forever and it's obvious you love it. Very cool. Meself, just finished the (authorized) Terry Knight biography, hope it sees print soon. I wonder if I'll ever see St. Louis again. Best to ya.

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Blogger Steve Pick said...

Good to hear from you, Barry. I'm having fun doing this when I get the chance. Are you working your way through bios of all the early 70s rockers?

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