War of the WorldsWar of the Worlds on Blu-ray Disc

by Jim Bray

Steven Spielberg turns his masterful moviemaking skills to science fiction again in this re-teaming with Tom Cruise, a movie that updates the classic H. G. Wells story and ups its terror quotient substantially.

I'm glad I got a chance to watch this movie again, because when I first saw it on DVD I thought it sucked – mainly because I couldn't get over the apparent idiocy of gigantic war machines buried for however many years beneath urban locations where you'd think the folks laying water and sewer pipes might have noticed them. It was the sort of silly idea that causes one to suspend one's suspension of disbelief. And that's a fatal error in science fiction.

That aspect of the movie hasn't changed, nor has my opinion of it. But upon second viewing I went from being of the opinion that War of the Worlds was one of Spielberg's worst outings to think that it's one of his better scary films. And when you consider that he gave us Jaws and Jurassic Park, to name just two of his better scary films, that's saying something.

On the other hand, Jaws and Jurassic Park (especially the latter) were also peppered with healthy doses of wonder and even some humor, whereas War of the Worlds is much darker, giving us a brutal and undoubtedly realistic look (assuming an alien invasion is realistic!) at the end of civilization as we know it and how modern people react to their lives being torn asunder right from, er, under their feet.

It's also a disaster movie that shows just how much better a filmmaker Spielberg is than people like Irwin Allen and Roland Emmerich, the latter of whose epics like Day After Tomorrow and 2012 beat you over the head with so much dumb stuff that you don't even want to suspend your disbelief. Unlike Emmerich, Spielberg knows that, as great as they can be, special effects do not a movie make.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise, who once again defies the critics by proving he can act) is Everyman – like Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary in Spielberg's badly-dating Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only Ferrier's nuclear family has been blasted apart in a manner perhaps as reflective of the film's time frame as Neary was for CE3K's. He's a blue collar guy who lives on his own and whose main joy is his classic Mustang. He apparently isn't much of a father, which makes the fact that this particular disaster hits while he's custodian of his estranged kids that much more difficult for him, though of course it also offers him more chance for growth and heroics in the upcoming Battle of the Planets (oops, wasn't that a different movie, one from the 1970's?).

While he's sparring with teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and the substantially younger Rachel (Dakota Fanning) over what to eat and what to do with their weekend, an eerie lightning storm breaks out heralding the arrival of the aliens, who apparently ride the lightning bolts down into their pre-packaged war machines.

Ray finds himself separated from his kids when the first three legged war machine pulls itself up from beneath the New Jersey asphalt and begins unleashing its horror upon the unsuspecting and uncomprehending populace, sending them scurrying for cover. Alas, far too many of them are unable to reach it and are blasted into so much grey dust – dust that Ray carries home with him when he finally makes it back to what he knows is no longer his safe haven, nor is it in the least bit secure.

So begins his attempt to get his kids away from the chaos and death, hopefully to the safety of Boston where his ex-wife (Miranda Otto who, unfortunately, is mostly wasted in a very small part). Their journey takes them from one fright to another as the invaders wreak their havoc on the landscape and its inhabitants, grabbing the humans they don't blast so they can be used for a nefarious purpose we only learn of much later.  

Through it all, Ferrier does his best to keep his family together and safe – even, in the case of his little daughter, safe from having to bear witness to the horrors unfolding around them (though she'd have to be deaf not to experience them even after being blindfolded by her father as he tries the only things he can think of under such duress to spare her the worst of the experience).

Yikes! This is one heck of a ride.

Spielberg's War of the Worlds could have been just your average, run of the mill alien invasion blast 'em up movie, but it works on so many levels beyond that. The filmmaker can play his audience like a violin when he wants to and here his virtuosity is on fine display. And even though the "alien machines under ground" idea is still silly, the film still works on every other level.

So much so that, if such a scenario as is outlined in this production were ever to come to pass, we couldn't envision it unfolding much differently from this. The unstoppable, marauding aliens are truly horrifying and, much to the chagrin of the liberal elite, they don't appear too concerned with understanding the human race and don't give a damn if we want to be nice to them. No, they want humanity dead – or worse, and they're not about to listen to us apologize for all our perceived faults, real or imagined.

Meanwhile, the humans find out very quickly how close the line is between their comfortable lives and total chaos, where society has broken down and it's everyone for himself as each person is forced into making his own desperate attempt at surviving the day. It's easy to imagine this really happening.

Of course you'd expect the special effects to be first rate in a Spielberg movie and you won't be disappointed by War of the Worlds. The huge alien machines move with an otherworldly gait that's really cool, and the mayhem they create is rendered completely believably.

We also enjoyed the homages Spielberg has made to the George Pal movie, including the oh-so-brief cameos by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of that film. But while that film featured a strong Christian component, the chief religious image in this version is the church that is one of the first buildings leveled by the alien weaponry. Perhaps that's also a testament to how our culture has changed in the half century between both films.

The Blu-ray is very good, though - as with Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report - the movie itself has been given a grainy, unreal look that can  make it difficult to judge whether or not the high def format is being used to its best advantage.

The 1080p picture is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which leaves small black bars above and below the picture on a 16x9 screen. The picture appears too bright at times and not nearly colorful enough, a stylized look that doesn't help impart the realism as much as it could – looking almost black and white in places. The sharpness also suffers in places, looking a tad soft, but this is undoubtedly due to the director's original vision for how the film should look. As such it's undoubtedly great, but we'd have loved to see a Blu-ray that looks so real you think you can almost reach into the picture - the way some Blu-rays appear.  To hell with this arty stuff - a movie like this would be so much more frightening if it looked like we were peering through a window instead of watching a Hollywood movie.

The audio, though, is absolutely reference quality. It's presented in dts-HD Master Audio 5.1 and surrounds you and pummels you with the pyrotechnics unfolding in front of you on the screen. It's an incredible sonic experience that uses all of the home theater's channels to great effect and is as crisp and clean as it is loud. I loved it!

There's a decent selection of supplementary materials, too, kicking off with Revisiting the Invasion in which director Spielberg talks about his fascination with alien invasion movies and their themes. There are also interviews with cast and crew. The H.G. Wells Legacy  features the grandson and great-grandson of H.G. Wells, joined by Spielberg, talking about Wells'  legacy.

Spielberg also gives his insight into the original movie and some of the connections between it and his.  Previsualization looks at the technique that helps movie makers build their big budget special effects films these days, while a series of production diaries looks into the shoot itself.

"Scoring War of the Worlds" is a nice extra for fans of the Spielberg/John Williams collaboaration that has brought us so many great musical scores over the years, while "We Are Not Alone" has the director reminiscing about the influences that shaped his desire to make "alien-oriented" movies.

There are also some still galleries and a trailer.

War of the Worlds, from Paramount Home Entertainment
117 min. 1080p widescreen (1.85:1), dts HD MA 5.1
Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto and Tim Robbins
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson
Written by Josh Freidman and David Koepp, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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