Spielberg gets the right mix

Ervell E. Menezes recounts his meeting with Steven Spielberg and says his latest War of the Worlds is a tight tale with apt characterisation

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg

For a sci fi wizard like Steven Spielberg it is indeed surprising that he should have waited three decades to make War of the Worlds. After all, its author, H. G. Wells, is one of the earliest writers of science fiction along with Frenchman Jules Verne. Spielberg did dabble with Wells’ Time Machine when he produced Back to the Future but then he did not direct the film.

War of the Worlds is easily one of the world’s most famous science fiction novels and was published when the Kaiser was riding high and threatening to gain worldwide power.

In fact, Wells’ grandson, zoologist Dr Marin Wells, who visited the sets of War of the Worlds with his family, said, "The British were nervous of the Kaiser about the time the novel was published. The novel seems to come back each time there is a fear of an invasion."
In a way, it is a film sci fi aficionados must have longed for a long, long time.

Quite often, Spielberg has a tendency of being obsessed with special effects and therefore sacrificing content for form. And in the last decade or so he’s obsessed with overlong films (150 minutes and more) and this is a handicap because it has to hold the viewer’s attention so much longer.

Spielberg is a Hollywood mogul today and has a large following but time was when he came to Bombay in 1977 to shoot a sequence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a wonder kid of 28 after having made that box-office hit, Jaws. The scene was one of invoking a UFO (unidentified flying object) and was shot at Hal village, near Khopoli, on the Bombay-Pune highway. Along with Spielberg were two cinema veterans, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, who played a scientist in the film, and British cameraman Douglas Sloacombe.

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds
Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds

This writer was there at the shoot and also interviewed Spielberg at the time. At 28, he was young and impetuous. "Working on this film has helped change my ideas of UFOs. I want to see a landing. I want to be with  friends when this happens. I want to see something that doesn’t look like a military machine and I don’t want it to come too close." He was really curious. But his impetuosity came across when in the hotel lobby he saw an airlines stewardess. He said, "I’m in love with this girl."

Why the India connection, you ask him. He said his father was in India during World War II. "He was a radio operator and flew those B-25 bombers which bombed the bridges in Burma when the Japanese were there. They were known as the BBB or the Burma Bridge Busters."

In 1993, he produced a film, Burma Bridge Busters, which hasn’t been released in India.

The shoot at Hal village was quite impressive. It was shot from a hillock where a high priest was invoking a UFO. Down below were 300 extras, dressed in yellow (not saffron) and they sang aa ja re, aa ja which happened to be the theme song of Close Encounters. Spielberg had explained that "third kind" meant people who had actually seen creatures from space. The first kind is only seeing a UFO, while the second kind is seeing the marks of a UFO on the ground.

About War of the Worlds, Spielberg says, "This is not one of those sweet, cuddly, benign alien stories," in an obvious reference to his other sci fi movie, E.T. — the Extra-Terrestrial.

In the 1990s, Spielberg earned the reputation of making overlong blockbusters which often sacrificed content for form apart from overindulging in special effects. In War of the Worlds, thankfully, he has shed that image and made a normal 110-minute film.

Coming as it does after 9/11, the first impression created is one of a terrorist attack. The alien attack is set against the backdrop of a human drama. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is an everyday American, a crane operator who’s with his estranged children over the weekend. The teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and little Rachel (Dakota Fanning) have been dropped at New Jersey by his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her new husband.

"Take care of our kids," says the ex-wife as she makes off to Boston to meet her parents.

His son takes his car without his permission and his daughter is not exactly at home with her father when the drama begins. What starts off like a storm with flashes of lightning and huge cracks in the earth’s surface gradually grows into an alien attack. It’s panic station with folks running helter-skelter before the emergence of those gigantic, metallic creatures called tripods that emerge from underground.

Meanwhile, Robbie has been located and reluctantly joins Ray in a bid to escape the enveloping catastrophe. The build-up is excellent, very much like that of Close Encounters and at one time Tom Cruise reminds one of a running hero like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. But later, he is more stationary as he has to encounter these gigantic, firepower-hungry predators.

"Once these tripods move, nothing comes out of the area," says a New Yorker. "Those machines come out of the ground. That means they were buried long ago," says another. Gradually, like peeling the layers of an onion, director Spielberg zeroes in on the tentacle-like organs of these creatures that move almost snake-like to get their victim. Then, there are other smaller creatures, somewhat cute and inquisitive but not friendly.

The action sequences are brilliantly handled by Spielberg and come in three or four doses. He also spaces them out to develop suspense. Then there is a good cameo of Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) whose bereavement makes him moronic and is as much a danger to Ray and Rachel as the alien attackers. It is a character modeled on the curate in Wells’ novel.

The screenplay by John Friedman and David Koepp is imaginative with the hero’s family drama graphically projected. Then there is nine-time cinematographer Janus Kamenski going to town with the action shots. The crane shot is used effectively. His friend George Lucas’ Industrial Lights & Magic team does the needful with the special effects. But thankfully they are not overdone. Michael Kahn’s editing is terse but John Williams’ music is far from overpowering.

Tom Cruise is quite believable as the non-hero and for once he is seen in a different light and looks vulnerable. He is adequately supported by little Dakota Fanning, seen last in Hide and Seek, and Justin Chatwin as the difficult teenager. Tim Robbins, not easily recognisable, also makes his presence felt.

It is a taut, absorbing drama till the climax, which is a bit of a letdown. It detracts from the overall effect but the fact that it keeps the viewer absorbed most of the time is good enough. It also does justice to the H.G. Wells classic.

Spielberg surely redeems his 1990s’ image with a taut, strong narrative which is the right blend of form and content. Worth watching.