There have been several adaptations of H.G. Wells’s seminal book of aliens from Mars invading the Earth but only three have really stood the test of time, these would be the 1938 Orson Welles radio play, the 1953 film adaptation by legendary producer George Pal and finally, the Steven Spielberg production released back in 2005, but one of the truly interesting aspects of the original H.G. Wells story is just how easily the subject matter could be updated and made timely for future generations.
The 1953 George Pal adaptation of War of the Worlds for an audience that was gripped by the beginnings of the Cold War and the Martian invasion was both an analog to the Red Scare and the American public’s fear of the atom bomb, then we jump ahead five decades and we have an American populace once again gripped in fear but now it’s not the Russians but a more obscure threat grown in the shadow of the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. When watching Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, one glimpse of Tom Cruise covered in ash it’s obvious what emotions Spielberg was trying to evoke in the viewer, sadly, the one thing this 2005 film fell victim to was the desaturated look that had become prevalent in many movies of the early 2000s. Gone are the glorious glowing red death rays and the brilliant pulsing green lights of the Martian war machines in George Pal’s version, instead, we get cold grey CGI war machines that march through an even bleaker landscape.
Like the original H.G. Wells novel the protagonist of Spielberg’s adaptation is your everyman, in the book he was an unnamed 19th-century writer and in this 2005 adaptation he’s a blue-collar dockworker named Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), and like the protagonist in the book Ray must navigate a war-torn landscape to find his wife – or ex-wife as the case may be – unfortunately, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp decided to make Ray a deadbeat dad and he’s travelling across this war-torn landscape with his two children, 10-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning ) and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and the key difference here is that Ray is not hoping to be reunited with his true love, which was the case in the Wells novel, but simply to hand off the children to his ex-wife, and as Robbie so accurately points out “Then you will only have to care about yourself, which is exactly the way you like it!” Now, one would think this will lead to character growth, with Ray coming to realize how much he truly cares for the children, but his two kids are so bloody annoying that I was all for Ray ditching them both and striking out on his own.
One’s enjoyment of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds will stem from how much you can take of Dakota Fanning’s screaming as the hyper-annoying Rachel or the idiotic actions of Justin Chatwin’s Robbie, who wants to rush off and join the soldiers fighting the aliens so that he can “Get back at them!” These actions and character motivations are not only intensely stupid, and yes, I understand that this film is trying to capture the emotions that Americans were dealing with after the attacks on 9/11 but these aren’t terrorists from across the sea it’s an all-powerful alien invasion and Robbie isn’t five years olds. The moment when Robbie abandons his father and little sister so that he can run off with the military because he “Wants to see” has to be one of the dumbest scenes in cinema history, and what’s worse is that after all the carnage that follows Spielberg didn’t have the balls to leave the kid dead. This is not the same Spielberg who killed the little Kintner kid in Jaws, that Spielberg would have shown Robbie atomized by a death ray.
As for the invading aliens themselves, Spielberg certainly had a larger budget and a greater set of tools than what George Pal had back in 1953 when it came to creating alien invasion, and thus the tripod war machines that George Pal was told were too expensive, now, the people over at ILM were able to realize this piece of “Martian” weaponry in all its glory. Koepp and Spielberg did add a little wrinkle to their invasion, in their film we are told that the tripods’ pilots travelled to Earth within “lightning storms” as a way to enter their machines, which are assumed to have been buried underground millions of years ago. I’m not sure how this makes sense as an invasion tactic – can the aliens predict what kind of opponents, if any, they will be facing millions of years in advance or do they simply seed every planet in the universe just in case one of them becomes a viable destination – but regardless of the plausibility of such an invasion Spielberg and company are masters at building tension and unleashing spectacle.
Note: We never do learn where these particular aliens come from and it certainly can’t be the Red Planet, what with science and astronomy making Mars no longer a viable launching point. Interdimensional aliens, perhaps?
The budget that Spielberg and his effects team had may have allowed them to make an adaptation of War of the Worlds that would be closer to what H.G. Wells had written all those many years ago, certainly more than any adaptation previous to this one; this movie gives us the “Red Weed” that the aliens seem to be using to possibly terraform the Earth, but we still don’t get the poisonous black smoke that appeared in the novel and but even though Spielberg keeps the focus on the “everyman” which is more in keeping with the original book, but this didn’t stop Spielberg from having Tom Cruise take out a tripod with a grenade. As this is another modernized retelling of the original novel this kind of thing should be expected and where this particular adaptation really soars is in the horrifying visuals on display, such as a locomotive engulfed in flames barreling through a railway crossing and the grim sight of dozens of dead bodies floating down a river, but Spielberg wasn’t just trying to capture the horror and gripping terror of the original novel he wanted to show humanity at both its best and its worst, that the threat being represented here was very real, stating “They are a wake-up call to face our fears as we confront a force intent on destroying our way of life.” Was Spielberg warning us about possible alien invasions or threats of closer in nature?
Once again we get an adaptation that takes great liberties with the source material, updating the setting to current times and lacing the story with themes that would resonate with modern viewers, which was to be expected, but I personally prefer the Technicolor adventure film that George Pal produced back in 1953 because even though Steven Spielberg is the king of special effects extravaganzas this film had me praying that the aliens would vaporize Tom Cruise’s very annoying family and that is not a feeling you want to be generated in your alien invasion film.
Note: As in the George Pal version the war machines in this version are also protected by an invisible force field, something not found in the book, but in Spielberg’s film these shields apparently drop as the bacteria kills the pilots, and one has to admit that’s a strange feature to have in your death machine. This addition was clearly so that the military could have at least a small victory in this film, “Go America!”
War of the Worlds (2005)
Movie Rank - 6/10
There is a lot to enjoy in this adaptation of War of the Worlds but if Spielberg had managed to include a cast of characters I gave a damn about this could have been a great movie because a lot of the visuals were simply stunning.