When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was directing a new movie version of War of the Worlds, I was quite excited, even though a small voice within cautioned me not to get too worked up over what could turn out to be a crushing disappointment. Sure enough, when the movie came out, many reviewers criticized it. Still, I waited eagerly for it to come to DVD so that I could see it for myself and make up my own mind about its quality.
When I finally saw it the other day, I was forced to agree with the critical critics. Yes, it was a masterpiece of visual and auditory special effects, rendered all the more impressive by my big screen TV and thundering surround sound system. But it lacked just about everything else that makes a movie good. Tom Cruise seemed to sleepwalk through his role, even at his most histrionic moments. His children were so obnoxious that I wanted the death rays to incinerate them and get them the hell out of the way. There was an extended scene in the basement of a building with a survivalist character played by Tim Robbins that seemed pointless if not “creepy,” as one reviewer called it, in its gratuitously pedophilic overtones. The movie, even with its stunningly graphic portrayal of extraterrestrial dominance and destructiveness, seemed too narrowly focused upon a family I cared nothing about and too little on broader scientific, social, philosophical, religious, or just plain human themes. And its ending seemed like little more than an afterthought.
This is in stark contrast to some of my favorite sci-fi films such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Forbidden Planet,” or even Spielberg’s own masterful “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” all of which managed to engagingly blend personal stories of human interest with compelling treatments of broader issues. I’d like to see the 1953 version of “War of the Worlds” again. It seems to me that even it was superior in some respects to Spielberg’s mindless, soulless extravaganza, and I understand that there’s another fairly new movie version of the story that may also be better than Spielberg’s, even if a great deal less flashy.
I wonder if anyone will ever make another truly great sci-fi film that engages the heart and mind as readily as it does the senses, or whether we are doomed to either cheesy Sci-Fi Channel potboilers or prodigal clones of the “Clones.”