There are two writing credits for this screenplay. Having seen the film, I now strongly suspect that one of them actually read through all the source material and the other just watched ID4 too many times. More on this later.
The animated Paramount Pictures logo is very appropriate this time as the stars fall from the sky before circling the mountain. I never noticed this before but suspect they've been doing it all along. From here and the other corporate logos we begin with a view of the microscopic creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water, a hint of things to come and a nod to anyone who may already be familiar with the story.
We hear the familiar first lines from the original novel, read by Morgan Freeman (who makes no other appearance beside the epilogue) and in a manner as if he's reading to children for story time. (One of the trailers had who I presume was Tom Cruise reading and not any better.) He may be fine for today's typical audience but I have already been heavily influenced by Richard Burton's excellent narration throughout Jeff Wayne's musical version of the story and can imagine no one else equaling those lines in tone or accent. But alas, we lost him in 1984.
Tom Cruise's character is introduced as Ray, a gritty dockworker with an ex-wife and two children shuffled back and forth between them and her new man. The first twenty five minutes are given over to showing in detail what a neglectful, inattentive bum of a father he is, prone to violent outbursts and spiteful behaviour toward his family. We have no reason to question why she left the man. Little Dakota Fanning plays Rachel, with all the personality of fingernails on a chalkboard (most of her dialog is screeched in terror) and as much use as a stack of sandbags. She and his deadbeat teenage son are the prime motivation for Ray to act, for facing wrath from his ex about their children's safety must be worse than invaders from another planet.
A strange storm boils into town, generating EMPs that disable all electronic devices (except the convenient video camera and cell phone) and sends bolt after bolt of lightning into the same midtown intersection. Cylinders are outdated and passe, this is how the aliens make their way down into their fighting machines, apparently long buried beneath the Earth's surface. I liked their concept of teleportation, but it sidestepped the spectacle of a strange object crashing from space, and the building suspense of its opening.
The fighting machine raises from the street (reminiscent to me of Tetsuo raising Akira's remains) and wreaks havoc. Hilarity ensues. Again filmmakers show their inability to understand the word "invisible" in reference to the heat ray, which is used in conjunction with almost every reference to the device in the book. However, it was done quite well and even shocked me into silence to see its victims cremated instantly into dolls of solid ash. Very creepy, and a nice take on the original scene:
Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.
The fighting machines were done very well, if not beefed up another 50 to 70% to accommodate the expectations of today's disaster/action film crowds. I was delighted to see hisses of steam come from the joints of the thing, but they were a little out of place with the addition of built-in halogen lighting and various electronics and bio-mechanics visible here and there. The machines were recollective of Geiger's work, but close-ups are scarce and we are mainly treated to shadowy outlines.
Having gone to investigate the aftermath of the electrical storm Ray encounters the fighting machine first-hand and flees in terror with the rest of the panicked crowd. He's covered in their cremated ash as seemingly everyone but him is turned to cinders by the dreadful heat ray (no pun intended.) There is one scene in particular I liked where he is running down the middle of the street while the beam is shearing off the upper storeys of buildings behind him which immediately reminded me of this line from the radio broadcast.
Next day I come to a city... a city vaguely familiar in its contours, yet its buildings strangely dwarfed and leveled off, as if a giant had sliced off its highest towers with a capricious sweep of his hand.
There are other nods and references like this throughout the film, some are necessary to the original story, others seem like someone just thought it would be neat to poke in something familiar.
So Ray collects his ungrateful kids, packs them into the only car in the neighbourhood that actually works thanks to an interestingly timed repair after the EMP, and heads off to his Ex's to safely reunite the family. Wells' protagonist had no children and was able to get his wife and servant to family in Leatherhead before the Martians had even left the pit their cylinder had created upon arrival. His horrors began when he returned the borrowed wagon to the innkeeper and found himself stranded in the midst of a catastrophic first wave attack from the invaders. Ray's journey is similarly fraught, with the exception of him arguing with his teenage son while Rachel screeches and has repeated panic attacks.
Thank goodness a bulldozer cleared the roads of debris and other vehicles before their flight or they would have been stranded long before their journey's end. But rather than give a blow-by-blow of the entire film, here are some noteworthy points:
- When jetliner crashes on his ex's house they are safely sealed in the basement. They're very fortunate that the entire neighborhood did not catch on fire like they usually do when doused with several thousand gallons of jet fuel.
- I don't think Wells had a foghorn in mind when he described the sounds made by the Martian fighting machines.
'As it passed it set up an exultant deafening howl that drowned the thunder--"Aloo! Aloo!"--and in another minute it was with its companion, half a mile away, stooping over something in the field.'
'It was near South Kensington that I first heard the howling. It crept almost imperceptibly upon my senses. It was a sobbing alternation of two notes, "Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla," keeping on perpetually.'
- Refugees attempt to cross a river using a car ferry under attack from the fighting machines. Alas, no Thunderchild is there to save them this time.
- Fleeing from battle between the invaders and the army, our protagonists (less the boy, who abandoned them because he just HAD to see the fight) hold up on the basement of a farmhouse with Tim Robins who plays three characters at once: The Artilleryman, The Curate and . . . Ogilvy??? The first two make him even more unstable and skiddish than the original characters and the third is obviously an afterthought by the writers in a "Hey, they'll recognize this name and think it's cool!" sort of way. It doesn't work, and we're thankful by the time Ray beats him to death with a shovel.
- It is in the basement where we get our first view of the actual aliens. Finding their mechanical tentacle/probe damaged by the escapees, they come through the rubble downstairs themselves to investigate. They are tall and scrawny with wide, flat heads and look suspiciously like this. I guess there were a few alien puppets left over from ID4
- No clues were given to the people of Earth that the invaders came from Mars. Since they did not arrive in rocket cylinder there was no bright flash visible upon that planet to signal their launch. Nor was there any mention of opposition, a key factor in the timing of their attack because that is the point at which Mars is closest to the Earth. These clues, along with current knowledge that Mars is a barren, desolate and dying world added nicely to the back story of why they're attacking in the first place. But then, explosions draw bigger crowds than story these days and the movie does not disappoint those who like flashy stuff.
- With the exception of the humans they use for food the invaders destroy everything standing: buildings; landmarks; vehicles; bridges; hot dog stands; all annihilated by their destructive heat ray. They seem to have no use for anything left created by the humans. This is rather silly for a military strategy because when you invade and conquer you don't want to have to rebuild absolutely everything when you move in. It's nice to have a few things like bridges and roadways left over to get around during your own reconstruction. But then, as with my previous point, for all we know they just came to run a ruckus, do some donuts in our gardens and leave before we could call the cops.
- The ending, though recognizable in its base elements, is very weak and tacked on. Ray reaches the city and finds its remains no longer being destroyed by the fighting machines standing there. A crowd gathers around one that has fallen over and gasps as an alien slides out of the hatch and conveniently dies in front of them. Ray and Rachel find their way to his ex-in-laws where his son stands with them waiting. She excitedly runs to her mommy while he stands half a block away amidst rubble, waiting for the invitation that never comes. Mom whispers a thank-you and we fade to black.
Morgan Freeman chimes in again about the bacteria to which the invaders were unimmune and therefore claimed their lives. It is the real ending, but is not satisfying at all after the pacing of the movie. They may as well have died of ice-cream headaches for all the plausibility it implies.
Did I enjoy the movie? Yes, actually. Will I see it again in theaters? Sure, if I can find company. Will I buy the video? Undoubtedly. Will I keep reading the novel year after year after year? Hell yeah; for all the millions of dollars and countless man-hours put into this new version and others, it's still the best of all. Thank you, Mr. Wells.
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