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9/11? Scientology? Family drama?
Whatever, Steven Spielberg delivers a pretty scary War of the Worlds
War of the words

Or, Alienating Tom Cruise

NEW YORK — Well, at least now we know Steven Spielberg likes the Phoenix. But Tom Cruise probably never will, thanks to me.

As you may have divined from the trailers, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds departs from all previous versions of the story by having the alien tripods emerge from underground, where they’ve lain dormant for eons, instead of arriving in spaceships. To me, that sounded like some aspects of Scientology lore. (Google "Xenu" and see for yourself.) So I wondered whether Cruise was behind the plot change. At a media press conference at Manhattan’s Essex Hotel last week, I asked him, "What resonance does that have for you as a Scientologist." "In what way?" he replied. "In that some of the tenets of Scientology deal with the past of aliens on this planet." Cruise bristled but never stopped smiling. "That’s not true," he said. "Like, huh? W-w-what? What paper are you from?" "The Boston Phoenix." "The Boston What?" He looked at Spielberg. "Is that a good paper?" Spielberg nodded. "I read it. It’s a good paper." Cruise then returned to my question. "It has no resonance whatsoever. There’s absolutely no relation to that whatsoever."

Spielberg picked up the ball and said that the plot change had been his idea. "I didn’t want to do the old ‘death from above’ cliché that we’ve seen so often in science-fiction movies. I just thought that was more of an original way of introducing a threat from where we least expect it to come, an extraterrestrial threat coming almost from the inner reaches of earth." Cruise interjected, "If you are interested in Scientology, you should read Evolution of a Science, I don’t know if you’ve ever read that, or Fundamentals of Thought. That will give you a greater understanding of what Scientology is. There’s a book called What Is Scientology? Read that." Uh, thanks.

Spielberg’s explanation echoed what screenwriter David Koepp had told me earlier in the day. "Part of the reason we couldn’t make them [the aliens] from Mars is that we know there’s nothing there. Also, when objects are approaching from space, we now have sophisticated telescopes and we’d see them coming." And the Scientology echo? "It certainly wasn’t conscious on my part. If I were out to make a Scientology reference, I’d be crazy."

What the film does refer to, and often, is September 11. "We studied a lot of combat footage and 9/11 footage to figure out what makes that stuff so real," said special-effects supervisor Dennis Muren. "It makes the effects much harder but much better."

Yet the filmmakers contend there’s no overt political agenda behind these references. "To some people, the movie will be about American fear of terrorism," Koepp said, "and to people elsewhere in the world, it might be about fear of an American invasion." Tim Robbins, who plays a crazed survivalist, said the story could apply to any attempt to invade or coerce a nation. "You can conquer it but you can never really inhabit it. You can apply that all across the world, even in this country."

"I tried to make it as open for interpretation as possible, without having anybody coming out with a huge political polemic," Spielberg said. "There are politics underneath some of the fear." He added, "I think I gave you enough rope to hang me with."

By the way, if you’re wondering why the movie’s Boston finale doesn’t look like Boston, that’s because the Hub is portrayed on screen by Brooklyn. "They may have wanted to shoot it in Boston at the end," explained Lord of the Rings alumna Miranda Otto, who plays the mother of Cruise’s children, "but we had to condense everything I did because I was pregnant and had to shoot it early. So it was probably my fault. Sorry, Boston." Yeah, too bad the shoot didn’t make it to town; Cruise might have acquainted himself with a certain local alternative weekly.

— GS

War of the Worlds' official Web site

Steven Spielberg films' official Web site

Every generation gets the War of the Worlds it deserves. H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel could be read as a warning about sprawling industrialization. Orson Welles’s 1938 radio version panicked a nation anticipating attacks by the Axis powers. George Pal’s 1953 movie touched on Cold War nuclear fears. And now, in the post–September 11 era, the newest War of the Worlds gives us aliens who arise from sleeper cells to attack without warning, motive, explanation, or mercy.

Not that Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise and screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) seem interested in making a political parable. They just want to tell a story of a broken family tested by extraordinary events. Oh and to scare the pants off us.

Of course, after so many retellings, scary is hard to come by. Fortunately, the director of Jaws is an old pro at frightening us with what we don’t see. The aliens don’t show up for quite a while (Spielberg spends the first 20 minutes on character development — remember that?), and even when they do, they reveal themselves gradually. We see and learn only what Cruise’s character, a New Jersey prole named Ray Ferrier, sees and learns. There are no presidents, generals, or scientists, no scenes of world landmarks being destroyed, and no scenes that take place outside the Northeast Corridor journey of Ray and his two kids, nervous little Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and rebellious teen Robbie (Justin Chatwin). They’re headed to Boston, where they hope to find Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), the kids’ mother and Ray’s ex-wife, still alive. True, that microcosmic approach would be more novel if M. Night Shyamalan hadn’t used it in Signs, but Spielberg’s terrifying aliens won’t succumb to a baseball bat and a glass of water.

Cruise has a history of playing immature men who fear they’re a disappointment to their distant or absent fathers. Here he’s an absentee father who fears disappointing his children. His job isn’t to save the planet or the country, just his own family. Ray may be Cruise’s most challenging role; his character faces not just extreme physical and emotional tests but some unthinkable moral ones as well. Ray needn’t say much; his struggles are always apparent on Cruise’s face. Similarly convincing are Fanning, eerily mature and self-possessed as ever, and Tim Robbins as a samaritan whose increasingly desperate behavior makes it clear to Ray that friends can be as dangerous as enemies.

As always, Spielberg creates some indelible and poetic images: the wreckage of a jetliner strewn across a block of flattened suburban homes; a silent regatta of human bodies floating down a river; a train of blazing freight cars hurtling down the railroad tracks; the clothes of the vaporized dead drifting down over a forest like snow. For the fanboys and scholars, there are some visual nods to previous versions of the story. There are also the inevitable echoes of September 11 — the downed plane, the fleeing crowd, the mural-sized collages of pictures of the missing. For some viewers, these scenes may smack of exploitation, but maybe the images are just a function of the time we live in and the visual vocabulary we’ve created to express our state of anxiety, a vocabulary that seems to have borrowed, in turn, from disaster movies. Witness the ferry-boat sequence, which plays like a mini-Titanic.

Spielberg has marred most of his recent movies with weak endings. The films go on one sequence too long, with codas that soften the impact of all that’s gone before. War of the Worlds ends too abruptly, running out of juice just as the aliens do. Even on summer popcorn terms, it’s a tepid finish to a movie that, for its first hour or so, taps so expertly into our fears.

Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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