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Featured Blu-ray Review: The War of the Worlds

May 29th, 2010

The War of the Worlds - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

When War of the Worlds was announced, I was very excited. It was based on an amazing book by H.G.Wells that has been adapted a number of times before, but never in a way that I consider 100% satisfactory. My personal favorite is the 1953 edition, but it suffers from some flaws, including the loss of the iconic tripod designs. (I understand this was due to the limitations of the visual effects of the day.) But a lot of the flaws were due to the decision to set the film in modern day, at least modern for 1953. This version of The War of the Worlds fix these issues?

Tom Cruise stars as Ray, a dock worker in New Jersey who is divorced dad with two kids. He's late taking the kids for the weekend, but despite this, he still takes the time to insult his ex-wife's new boyfriend while dismissing his son's obvious displeasure with him as a lack of manners. Some might say be 30 minutes late shows a lack of manners, but that's beside the point.

We hear on ENN, that's Exposition News Network, that there have been thunderstorms in the Ukraine that have caused massive power outages followed by earthquakes. Shortly afterward, the same thing happens in New Jersey, right out side Ray's house. He thinks it's cool, while his daughter is less enthusiastic. When the storm ends, he goes off to find his son, who had previously stolen his car, and quickly goes to where the lighting strikes had hit the most frequently. A large crowd has formed around the spot when the ground shakes when the ground shakes and the first tripod is revealed. This is the coolest scene in the movie. The second coolest scene is either the the aftermath of the jumbo jet crash or the burning train speeding through the night.

Besides those few scenes, what we have is a competently made sci-fi action film with several special effect set pieces. (Some of these seem more dated than they should considering the film is only five years old. The scene where Ray is driving away in the stolen van stood out as particularly bad.) However, while it is competently made, it doesn't stand out as particularly intelligent, especially given its source material. I know that some thing it is unfair to compare a movie and the book it is based on, because they are two different mediums. And I understand it might not be 100% fair to compare the movie to the book, but if it is okay to compare one movie to another in the same genre, why not this? After all, I know some aspects of the book have to be changed for the movie, because not everything will translate perfectly, my complaints are not in that category.

Firstly, the book stars an unnamed narrator, who is clearly meant to be the character that the reader is meant to project onto. Because of this, the character doesn't do a whole lot, but instead wanders from event to event observing the Martians' attacks and how people react to them. In the movie, Ray is more of an active participant in the movie are far too often portrayed as more heroic than his dock worker background would suggest. How the hell did he manage to race down the highway in that min-van? That's not a vehicle normally associated with high-speed performance. And why was he the one that noticed the shields were down? Isn't that something a trained military man should have noticed? Also, for the main protagonist, it's quite insufferable at times. Granted, the shock of witnessing an alien invasion will have a negative effect on your psyche, but he was a jerk right from the start. I don't want to project myself onto this jerk, even if some people reading this think this isn't a stretch.

Tim Robbins plays a character that is an amalgam of two characters from the book: the soldier and the priest. In the book the soldier is determined that the human race will rise again, but his meager ability pales compared to his ambition (a huge underground city). On the other hand, the priest believes the aliens are demons sent by God to punish humans for their sins. It is clear that he's had a mental breakdown and in the end it is his religious zealotry is what causes his demise. In the movie, the character believes humans will rise again, but has a mental breakdown and is killed because of it. The religious angle is completely cut from the film. I assume this was true because the filmmakers didn't want to offend anyone. On the one hand, this changes an important aspect of the book and in many ways reverses it. On the other hand, this does make sense, as the movie cost $180 million to make and advertise, so they couldn't afford to offend any potential moviegoers. That said, it didn't work, as people were complaining that the movie somehow made it seem like being the victim of an invasion was a bad thing. Seriously, people were complaining about that. Not enough to truly matter, as the movie earned more than $500 million worldwide, but it goes to show you that if you try to have a message in your movie, then some people will complain no matter what.

Finally, there's one last point about the relative strength of the Martians and the humans from the book to this movie. In the book the humans are able to deal with the Martians rather easily when compared with how it is in the movie. For instance, an artillery brigade is able to take out a walker with concentrated fire, while the HMS Thunder Child is able to destroy two tripods before being destroyed itself. There was a huge gap between the technology of the humans and the Martians; while it took concentrated fire form a battalion of artillery to take down one walker, one walker could destroy the same battalion with a sweep of its heat ray. Additionally, the human's most powerful weapon, HMS Thunder Child, was also one of its least mobile. So while humans could hurt Martians, we would never be able to muster a large enough force in any one area with win a battle, never mind the war. However, nowadays, our best weapons are also among our most mobile, so to invoke the same sense of inevitable doom, the Martians must be neigh invulnerable. While the Martians' shields are up, nothing the humans fire at them have any effect, so why does Robbie want to join the fight? In the book, if a character like this wanted to join the army it would make sense, as it is possible to think, 'If only we had more men fighting we could win.' But in the movie, it's like trying to stop a tank with a paintball gun. It doesn't matter how many people are shooting at it; it's never going to have an effect.

One final complaint... at least one final complaint about the movie... Wow. This is a ham-fisted movie. The lack of subtlety is epitomized by the scene with Ray comes home and he's covered in dust... just like the survivors on 9/11.

Moving onto the Blu-ray... it's shovelware. There are eight relatively short featurettes and an hour-and-a-half long making documentary. On the one hand, that's a lot of extras. On the other hand, there is nothing here that pushes the technology. Hell, they are all presented in standard definition. That's not to say the High Definition is much of a selling point. Granted, the film sounds great with amazing bass level and fantastic use of surround sound. However, the video is unacceptable, as the level of grain is distracting. Someone needs to tell certain filmmakers (note the plural, as it this is a common problem) that film grain is a flaw, not something that should be celebrated. It's like digitally adding in a hair caught in the projector to make a film look old and therefore more like the classics. If I woke up and real life was that grainy, I would immediately head to an eye doctor, I wouldn't consider the world more artistic.

The Verdict

Maybe my expectations for The War of the Worlds were just too damn high. The book was the first sci-fi book I read, at least it's the first Sci-fi book that I read that I still remember reading. The symbolism of the book is made too blunt in this movie and we are left with a merely average action movie. The Blu-ray offers nothing new from the most recent DVD and at $20 it is a little pricey for shovelware, unless you think that's enough for loseless audio. Meanwhile, I'm stuck still waiting for an adaptation that I'm truly happy with. Maybe when they finally get around to making the oft rumored Jeff Wayne version I will finally be happy with a War of the Worlds movie.

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