War of the Worlds posterI know I’m a week late and $77.7M short, but I’m not asking for your pity. All I’m gonna do is tell how I liked the movie, which is, I did. It was super scary for a PG-13 flick and had a lot of amazing moments, which I will enumerate after the jump.

THE JUMP (Spoilers ahead)…For those keeping score, this is the first movie starring Tom Cruise that doesn’t have his mug on the poster (see picture above). There’s no doubt that his recent off-screen antics have been more interesting than his performance here, although it is plenty solid. Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto and new face Justin Chatwin are likewise second fiddle to Spielberg’s stirring visuals.

Those tripods are hella terrifying. But the small details are what stick in the mind: Tom Cruise framed by a broken window, clothes flapping on a clothesline (and later raining down from the skies), a mob swarming over a car. Reviewers who said Spielberg evokes the terror of 9/11 are mostly wrong. New York after 9/11 was almost unnaturally courteous. He seems rather to be evoking the terrors of foreign occupation.

Any message about the war in Iraq is muddled by the Tim Robbins character, once again sporting a vague New England accent and shell-shocked persona. He advises against panicking, and is later murdered in cold blood by Ray for, presumably, panicking. I did not understand this interlude at all. His talk of hiding in tunnels and creating an insurgency made the most sense of anyone in the whole movie. To have Tom Cruise kill him seems to support the killing of insurgents by fellow insurgents. Or something. A.O. Scott, my nemesis, has avoided his usual overinterpretation in his review of War of the Worlds. If he can’t be tempted, neither will I.

This movie can’t be dismissed, however, as dumb entertainment. While it generally avoids the sacharine Spielbergian pathos, it still tugs the guts by showing life through a child’s eyes — the bodies floating down the river, the continual concern of Ray and Robbie that Rachel close her eyes. The latent metaphor in H.G. Wells’ story is encapsuled perfectly by the Fight Clubesque opening, if not by Morgan Freeman’s avuncular narration. The protagonist of this story is a bacterium, however much Cruise grenades alien orifices or tips the National Guard. There’s a larger point out there, dancing on the head of a pin.

Dumb questions. Did no one ever come across the tripods when they dug below New York and New Jersey — or anywhere? What the eff happened to Robbie (Justin Chatwin) that he survived and beat Ray and Rachel to Boston? I think the writers lost their way, trying to force Tom Cruise into action mode. Who cares if he’s responsible for bringing down some tripods or not. His goal is survival: his and his daughters. When the movie starts moving away from that, it starts to lose plausibility.

I maintain that David Koepp is over-rated as a screenwriter. He keeps getting A-list assignments and not quite pulling them off to their potential: Secret Window, Panic Room, Spiderman, Snake Eyes. Turnaround artist Josh Friedman also apparently did a significant draft. (You can tell he did not work with Koepp because there is a spelled out “and” between their names, not an ampersand. The Writers Guild mandates writing teams be separated by “&”.) I look forward to his James Ellroy adapation The Black Dahlia.

So overall, I liked War of the Worlds. Great thrills, cinematography, effects. That makes it a very satisfying summer movie. There are moments that lift it beyond the adequate. And if you can’t love a film for its moments, you can’t love 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Day the Earth Stood Still or Signs.

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