MOVIES: 'War of the Worlds' 1953 vs. 2005
The Martians are coming! The Martians are coming! In a fit of madness, I sat down over Thanksgiving weekend and watched Earth go up in flames not once but twice, watching two takes on H.G. Wells' 1898 invasion epic "War of the Worlds" — first the 1953 movie, then last summer's Tom Cruise remake. And for a week I was filled with paranoid dread.
I hadn't seen the 1953 "War of the Worlds" since I was a kid, and was surprised by how much fun it is, albeit as a guilty pleasure. It's got that Technicolor, stagey feel of other sci-fi golden oldies like the original "The Blob" and "The Fly." But it's fast-paced, entertaining and holds up pretty well more than 50 years later. Gene Barry is Dr. Clayton Forrester, one of those great 1950s clench-jawed he-man scientists, who is first at the scene when Martians invade the earth with an arsenal of terrifying weaponry. Forrester uses his know-how along with the army to battle the alien machines, but nothing seems to stop them. They even throw a nuke at the bug-eyed beasts, in a stunning scene that still packs a visceral punch. The final act, when all seems lost, is done with an apocalyptic vigor as Forrester runs alone through a destroyed city, visiting churches filled with huddled refugees, hoping against hope for a savior — which comes from a most unexpected source.
While it's corny by modern standards (Dig the square dance social in the opening scenes! Note how Dr. Forrester never loses his tie!), "WOTW" is still a blast. The alien ship designs are still an iconic classic, and it's a breezy 90 minutes long. Of course, like most classics, it had to be remade. Along comes Steven Spielberg, with the 2005 "War of the Worlds." While boasting fine visuals, story-wise it's a sullen disappointment, all menace but little heart.
"War of the Worlds" 2005 just feels joyless and grim, without the sense of wonder Spielberg's brought to dark sci-fi films like "Minority Report" and "A.I." (both of which I loved). Yeah, it's about the end of the world, but does it have to be such a downer, man? It lacks the popcorn-movie kick an alien invasion movie really should have. Instead of swarthy scientist Barry, the lead this time is swarthy ... auto mechanic Tom Cruise, as a loser divorced dad with his two squawky kids visiting for the weekend. Of course, the kids visit the weekend the Martians invade. Things go boom, Tom runs, and he and the kids set off on a cross-country odyssey barely keeping one step ahead of death by ray-gun.
"WOTW 2005"'s initial scenes of alien invasion are truly scary and creepy, "E.T." gone psychopath. Spielberg as always is a master of establishing tension. But there's way too many holes in the plot, which leave you scratching your head, and the final third of the movie is a deflating bore. Once the action moves to a claustrophobic farmhouse siege with guest-psycho Tim Robbins (and the movie really starts to rip off 2002's similar "Signs"), all momentum is gone.
There are some amazing moments in the new "WOTW," showing Spielberg's typically vivid imagery -- an idyllic river in a beautiful setting, which gradually fills with corpses floating downsteam; a train on fire, screaming along the tracks like a ghost; the immense, clanking designs of the alien ships. It's also an interesting tactic, making Cruise's self-involved father the central character watching the invasion from a man-on-the-street angle. You don't watch man's efforts to battle the aliens as vividly as you did in the original "War." But it also distances you from the movie if you don't really care what happens to Cruise, and this character is far from his best role. (Little Dakota Fanning, though, is great as his daughter.)
Both movies are kind of let down by the unfulfilling ending of Wells' original book — which I won't spoil here just in case you've never seen or read any "War of the Worlds." It's logical enough and was novel back in 1898, but it's also static and lacks the energetic release two hours of alien-fleeing tension deserves. I had a better time watching the 1953 version, even though you can clearly see the wires holding up the invading spaceships in several scenes. It's got an energy and kitschy charm that the dour remake self-consciously avoids indulging in. It's almost as if in trying to subvert the clichés of the genre, Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" fades away like people blasted into dust by laser beams.