It's not often that Liz and I get to sit down and watch a full-length sci-fi movie anymore, but last night after the kids were in bed we set down with great anticipation to watch Steven Spielberg's take on the War of the Worlds. With the original H.G. Wells novel, the brilliant radio adaption by Orson Welles that brought the nation to a state of mass hysteria in 1938, and the 1953 film all firmly entrenched in the pantheon of sci-fi classics we were eagerly anticipating what the guy that brought us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. might do with the story.
It started well enough with a tremendous electrical storm bringing the Martians to earth and killing all electrical devices (a la an electromagnetic pulse). They went through great pains to demonstrate how the lights were out, the TV didn't work, the wireless phone was dead, and even the cars in the street had quit working. Yet, 5 minutes later when the Tripods are wreaking mass destruction on the whole of New Jersey (like you could really tell the difference), there in the street, is a guy filming the whole thing with his camcorder! As he gets scared and turns to run, he drops his camcorder and we get a close-up on the LCD where we can see people being vaporized by the Martians laser rays. So this camcorder is the only electronic device working in the entire Tri-State area? But wait, there's more...as Tom Cruise grabs his kids, he manages to steal the ONLY working car in New Jersey and the masses of people lining the street in despair don't even try to stop him from getting the hell out of Dodge.
Later in the movie, Tom Cruise foils a Martian by using a mirror to confuse it. So let me get this straight...they buried death machines on our planet hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago, they've gone undetected by Earth's scientists for hundreds of years, they orchestrate a massive worldwide attack on earth dealing death and destruction in their wake, BUT...they haven't invented mirrors yet on Mars. Give me a break!
I know in sci-fi, sometime you have to suspend disbelief...and I was ready and prepared to believe that there were Martian death machines buried in New Jersey, but don't treat the viewers like idiots. The camcorder served no purpose in the story and it's stupid filmmaking like that they made me want to shut the DVD off right then.
I managed to stick with it and gripe about the rest of the film along the way. There are some neat effects in the movie and a couple of tense moments but this movie just fell flat for me. Thank goodness there was an unexpected appearance by Tim Robbins (one of my favorite actors) that at least kept me interested in the second half of the film. The one shining bit of redemption is that Dakota Fanning, who I first saw in the mini-series "Taken", does a wonderful turn as a terrified young girl. I hate to say it, but she probably put in the best performance in this movie.
I think my expectations were a bit high because just a few days earlier I had seen a brilliant sci-fi film, Omar Naim's The Final Cut starring Robin Williams and Mira Sorvino. Who would have thought that a marriage between Mork and Romy would produce such a great film!
In the film, Robin Williams plays a "cutter", a man whose job is to splice together the memories recorded by cebral impants after someone dies. The cutters produce the final recorded history of a person's life. Alone at the editing machine, Williams must make decisions about whether to reveal the evil and vile things that people did, or leave their families with a glowing, but perhaps artificial, rendition of the story of their loved one's life.
It's hard to imagine the comic Williams in such a dark and tortured role, but he was brilliant in One Hour Photo and I thought he was excellent again here. His talent as an actor goes well beyond what we'll see in the upcoming Mrs. Doubtfire 2.
The Final Cut harkens back the headier days of sci-fi movies like Soylent Green, Logan's Run, Planet of the Apes, and the original War of the Worlds, where the viewer is challenged with ethical and moral dilemmas about everyday life while the filmmakers spin a tale about a fantastic universe. There are no big explosions or special effects here, but they would have been superfluous anyway as Naim leaves his viewer with a well-crafted, suspensful thriller without the need to fill the screen with booms or bangs.
It's good to know that while some of the more brilliant sci-fi directors seem to have lost their way, there are new up-and-coming filmmakers ready to pick up the torch and carry on the classic sci-fi genre.