Thankfully, Steven Spielberg, the creator of arguably the first summer blockbuster Jaws (1975), has just released a new film: the dark sci-fi thriller, War of the Worlds. It's a polarizing film, in the way that all of Spielberg's films are polarizing: either you forgive Spielberg his proclivity to over-dramatize and tidy up his stories, and simply enjoy his films for what they are -- as ambitious, visually astounding pieces of bravura storytelling -- or you don't.
Personally, Spielberg is responsible for some of my favorite cinematic memories, and has given me one of my favorite films of all time, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) -- one of the most mature, emotionally rich, and complex pieces of cinematic storytelling I've ever witnessed. Most people still associate Spielberg with either his early works like E.T. (1982) and the Indiana Jones movies, or with his more obvious "mature" films like Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Truth be told, Spielberg is not the film-maker he once was in either of those periods, but an amalgam of both. He has developed beyond making a film aimed exclusively at youngsters or adults, and in recent years has concocted a series of fantastical dramas that are difficult to categorize. In this post-Private Ryan period, he's given us A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal (only the latter could be argued an artistic flop, but is still a film difficult to define, albeit one existing uncomfortably between fairy tale and reality, drama and comedy).
War of the Worlds is another breed entirely, ostensibly an extremely successful B-movie with clear allusions to 9/11 and our age of terrorism, much in the vein of the original War of the Worlds and Them, 1950s films that tapped into the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War. Unlike Revenge of the Sith and Land of the Dead, Spielberg imbues his film with politics without ever hammering home his points with superficial dialogue. You can watch War of the Worlds without being aware of its political underpinnings, but you'd be amiss not to at least acknowledge the reverberations of 9/11 and America's subsequent occupation of Iraq.
Ultimately, War of the Worlds has more in common with earlier Spielberg thrillers Duel and Jurassic Park than with A.I. and Minority Report, but at 116 minutes it is a hard-hitting horror film that transcends generic genre efforts, thanks to its many images of great beauty and terror; images that are weighted with great meaning. Is it possible to witness the initial entrance of the alien tripods, as they burst through New Jersey's streets and eviscerate throngs of screaming civilians, without bringing to mind New York on 9/11? Is it possible to view Tom Cruise covered in a powder of human debris and not think of those covered by the debris of the Twin Towers? Spielberg has found in the story of War of the Worlds a way to visually evoke a post-9/11 America without ever shirking the responsibilities of a blockbuster film.
But Spielberg's film is not without its flaws. The film’s first half is extremely effective, as Spielberg understands the importance of keeping his fantastical story grounded in reality, which creates real suspense and terror. It’s with the introduction of Tim Robbins in the film's second half that the film stalls, as Robbins' quirky performance as a gun-toting survivalist shatters the film's illusion of reality; Robbins reminds us that we're just watching a movie, dampening the suspense.
War of the Worlds also suffers from an ending so lazy and underwhelming that it's not even worth discussing. It's a film, like Spielberg's career, full of shortcomings and brilliance. 3 out of 4 stars.