Independence Day as Prestige Pic

Columbus Alive | June 30, 2005
Stephen Spielberg’s summer blockbuster entry is the quintessential modern Hollywood movie, with all the double-edged connotations the title brings with it. It’s a classic novel remade as all-star popcorn entertainment with a Big Message or two, by a director who brings expert visual storytelling skills to a disappointing, ham-fisted script. It could only be more perfect if it were a sequel, maybe War of the Worlds 2: Back with Face Masks.

For its first half, Spielberg succeeds in making the best of it. In the second screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Victorian-era tale of alien invasion (the first was in 1953), writers David Koepp (Secret Window) and Josh Friedman pick up at the same geographical location Orson Welles left off in his panic-inducing 1938 radio broadcast—New Jersey.

The lived-in suburban split-levels of ’80s-era Spielberg are replaced with working-class neighborhood row houses, and Tom Cruise stars as longshoreman and neglectful dad Ray Ferrier. His ex-wife (Miranda Otto from the Rings trilogy) drops off 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and surly teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) for a weekend together that none of them are looking forward to.

The next morning, all hell, and a lot of 9/11 allusions, breaks loose. Lightning storms lead to giant machines rising from the earth, unleashing death from above with rays that turn buildings and bodies to ashes. Ray’s covered in them when he gets home and mobilizes his children to save their lives. “Is it the terrorists?!” Rachel screams at her first sight of what’s outside.

The destruction and escape inspires awe and nail biting, and thankfully avoids the standard national monument shots, sticking close to the family’s perspective on events (a passing news crew shows up way too conveniently for a snapshot of the big picture, however). Once Ray is forced to accept sanctuary in the flooded basement of a distressed gun enthusiast named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), the central conflict shifts from global to personal, and the cracks that were always present in the film noticeably expand.

Cruise hasn’t established much father figure cred on film, but that’s not enough to make him right for the deadbeat dad part. Fanning is screechier, and therefore a little more annoying, than usual, and Robbins seems to be working remnants of his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River.

But regardless of who’s playing them, the characters are all stock from the start. They’re constructs and symbols instead of flesh and blood, samples of American reactions to an attack from outside and our division at home.

With so much meaning attached to them, and so much to blow up around them, the writers didn’t bother to give the players backstories that might explain their actions and reactions, or engender much sympathy in the viewer. War of the Worlds is thrilling in the beginning, but like most movies in the type it exemplifies, it’s pat and lifeless by the end.

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