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Close Encounter of the Worst Kind

August 7, 2006

As wondrous as it is watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind now, the experience in 1977 must have been tinged with anxiety. From the opening scene where the lost squadron of World War II fighters is found in the Mexican desert, sans pilots, to the abduction of the child from a rural farmhouse, viewers probably wondered when the alien lightshow would end and the incinerating death rays would begin.

At the time there was next to nothing in our collective media consciousness to suggest that aliens could be motivated by something as innocent as curiosity; even the seemingly benign aliens in Star Trek often had ulterior motives (and most of the non-humanoids in Star Wars, which came out six months earlier, tended toward the nasty). Twenty-eight years after he pioneered the idea of the “good alien,” Steven Spielberg adapted the story that started the whole alien invasion trend in the first place, H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel “War of the Worlds.”

The plot outline is the same as previous versions of the tale: bloodsucking aliens in massive machines murder everyone in their path, only to be undone by their vulnerability to terrestial germs. But where H.G. Wells wanted to awake readers to the sins of British colonialism, Spielbergs’ intent is humbler, more Bruckheimer than Brecht. He just wants to scare the crap out of you.

Like Orson Welles and Byron Haskin before him, Spielberg goes for a greater shock by moving the story to present-day. The protagonist is Ray Ferrier, and he’s played by Tom Cruise in perhaps the most thoroughly unconvincing performance of his career. He’s a divorced dockworker from Brooklyn (yeah right) whose kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) visit for the weekend so his ex-wife and her new husband can see her parents in Boston. Barring Cruise gaining 80 lbs., getting hit in the face with a shovel, or growing five inches, there is no way I’m buying him as a union card-carrying schlub.

Not that the writing does his character any favors. To show that he’s reckless, Spielberg has Cruise swerve his Trans Am through traffic; to show that he’s irresponsible, his ex-wife opens his fridge and finds only spoiled milk; to show that he’s estranged from his son, we get Cruise and Chetwin playing a tense game of catch in the backyard. That’s not character development, that’s a bad Bruce Willis impression. (Plus, Cruise throws like a girl.)

But you can’t keep a master like Spielberg from strutting his suspense. The first hints of the alien arrival are caked in dread. A maelstrom forms in the sky. Lightning strikes, repeatedly, nearby. The power–in everything, including watches and cars–goes out. Something very bad is coming. Despite Cruise’s comical miscasting, I was intrigued and repelled; in these early moments, War of the Worlds plays like a highly effective high-budget horror movie.

But things go awry for many of the same reasons that horror movies lose me. The very thing that Spielberg seems to want to tap into–post-9/11 fear of unimaginable catastrophe–is also his undoing. Prior to 9/11, we had no framework for knowing how New Yorkers would respond to disaster in the midst. After that terrible day, we did: they run. (I have a buddy who planned to swim across the Hudson River if another building got hit.) But the Brooklyn-ites in War of the Worlds don’t flee from the inevitable horror, they gawk at it.

After flocking to the spot where lightning struck 26 times, they stare and mutter at the manhole-sized crater in the middle of the street. When the pavement starts shaking, they continue to play the spectator. Only when a 20-story metallic jellyfish emerges from the earth and starts incinerating people with death rays do they flee.

Cruise and his two children manage to escape in implausible fashion; they find the only working car, perhaps in all of New York City, and escape via highways where stopped traffic has conveniently left a wide enough gap for a minivan to navigate at 70 miles an hour. They make their way to the countryside north of the city, which is where most of the movie’s action takes place. But even there they are not safe from alien invaders. These fuckers are committed to killing every man, woman and child.

Later, we learn the hows if not the whys of the invasion. Apparently, the aliens buried their ships long ago–a million, give or take–and use the lightning strikes as a vehicle to get into their subterranean murder machines. As a Metallica fan, I appreciated the allusions: the aliens ride the lightning to get to ships so they can kill ’em all. And when a ship’s tentacles scoop up victims by their torsos, it looks like a particularly vicious master of puppets. The aliens are indeed some kind of monster. [Cue groan.] Did I mention that the aliens bring megadeath to our planet? And that killing is their business… and business is good?

But unless we’re talking about Alien Sex Fiend, heavy metal has little to do with extra-terrestials. (That’s more of a funk thing.) The notion of ancient alien arrival certainly adds a touch of ominousness to the experience, but what the premise gains in mystery, it loses in coherence. If the aliens knew that earth was such a rockin’ planet a million years ago, why didn’t they just colonize it then? Did they figure that woolly mammoths and giant gophers would offer more of a resistance than human civilization? And since they rely on human blood for fuel, did they somehow know that primates would evolve into homo sapiens 500,000 years hence? And if they plan their invasions so far in advance, you think they would have stayed up-to-date on their immunizations.

As much as the movie fails every imaginable test of credibility, Cruise’s performance is the germ that undoes the invasion. While he has occasional moments where he made me feel his anxiety, his connection to his “children” felt as tenuous as a loose staple. When Cruise’s son leaves him to join the U.S. Army’s war against the aliens–and almost certain martyrdom–it’s supposed to be heartbreaking. But how am I supposed to care about a fraudulent character losing a fake son, especially when I sorta suspect that Spielberg will reunite the pair in the end anyway?

The aliens’ thoroughness in exterminating humanity is almost comical. There’s an overly long scene where Cruise and Fanning join a former paramedic (Tim Robbins) in the storm cellar of a farmhouse. After the aliens lay waste to everything outside, they send a camera-bearing tentacle into the basement to probe for survivors. After Cruise and co. bamboozle the probe with a mirror (a million plus years of alien inventiveness never got around to the idea of sticking aluminum foil between two plates of glass), a team of aliens descends into the basement. They’re not as cute as the naked white munchkins from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but they don’t seem particularly deadly either; they pick at photographs and bicycles like a couple of intergalactic archaeologists. Cruise and friends evade them too. By the time a third probe snakes its way through the basement, it’s no longer scary. It’s just exhausting.

Certainly nobody does spectacle like Spielberg, and there are some amazing scenes of blood-drenched rivers and F-14s shooting impotent missiles against the visitors’ ships. But some of the most potent moments are F/X-free; when Cruise and his family drive into a town flooded with refugees, the irrational crowd attacks their vehicle. Cruise only escapes alive by pulling his gun out. But he’s forced to drop his revolver when somebody else points a semi-automatic at his head. That man takes the car, only to be shot by whoever picked up Cruise’s lost gun. Like the Night of the Living Dead movies, some of the scariest horror comes not from the monsters, but from human desperation.

The movie’s conclusion takes place in Boston, where the earth’s viruses and bacteria have started taking their inevitable effect. Once the invaders expire, Cruise and Fanning make their way to his ex-wife’s parents’ house. While most of Boston has been obliterated, grandma and grandpa’s cobblestone remains unscathed. Better yet, his ex-wife, her husband and her parents are all alive and dressed in their finest Sunday afternoon wear. And just because it’s a Spielberg thriller, Cruise’s son is also alive and at his grandparents, and he’s ready for a hug.

While we’ve seen similar insanely implausible endings in The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day, at least those movies, as crappy as they were, had a sense of humor. So when families reunite in destroyed cities against literally impossible odds, its predictability played as instant camp. But Spielberg’s movies are too self-serious to be watched ironically. They can only be enjoyed when they’re good. And when they’re bad, they’re just painful. As Metallica would say, sad but true.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    August 7, 2006 5:53 pm

    This movie had only a tenuous hold on me in the beginning and completely lost me in the farmhouse scene. It was so obviously like the scene of the insectoid probes in the apartment house in Minority Report but handled so poorly by comparison. How do the same director and lead actor not recognize that they’re doing a scene that is just a pale imitation of their own fine work of just a couple of years before?

    By the end of this movie, I had invented a game which involved bouncing a superball off the ceiling, floor and two walls of my living room. To say the game was more entertaining than the movie is obvious. The fact that I also suspect that it had greater artistic merit is a little sad.

  2. Jason permalink
    August 9, 2006 8:33 pm

    My wife and I watched this movie, as its now running on a continous loop on HBO, and she gave up 30 minutes into. I regret that I stuck with it thru the end. The entire thing bugged the heck out of me. All the power goes dead, except for this one car, and the one guy with a video camera? huh?
    For the first time in a while, I found myself rooting for Cruise and Fanning to die, even though we know the main character never dies in a movie like this.
    If only it was possible to get Speilberg/Cruise to give me those lost 2 hours of my life back…

  3. bro permalink
    August 16, 2006 6:13 pm

    i didn’t have a problem with cruise’s performace, but i agree that most of the movie is a piece of crap. and considering this was rumored to be the most expensive movie ever made, the special effects are hardly mindblowing. i must take offense at your shot at independence day, however. i cant remember if i’ve defended it before on this site, but here goes anyway- ID was purely meant as a popcorn thriller, and never takes itself seriously, so it’s easy to laugh at/ignore the numerous implausibilities/inconsistencies, since all you want to see is buildings get blown up and air fights between aliens and humans. and the special effects were revolutionary at the time, if i recall correctly, it had 3 times as many CGI shots as any film ever made before it. but as soon as spielberg decided to treat the material seriously as a treatise on 9/11, he was doomed. of course, the guys who made ID made a similar mistake in their next would-be blockbusters- godzilla and day after tomorrow- which resulted in dull, decidedly unspectacular messes

  4. bro permalink
    August 16, 2006 6:32 pm

    here’s another point that i havent seen acknowledged anywhere- spielberg’s movies all seem to look the same these days. i dont know if he’s recently been working with one particular cinematographer or not, but they all seem to have the same bleached, almost monochromatic color scheme. it’s almost as if he’s trying to borrow the gravitas of the black and white schindlers list and lend it to his less substantial work

  5. August 23, 2006 5:15 pm

    Interesting points. Sorry about the delay in responding to them.

    You’re certainly entitled to your opinions on Independence Day, and I’ve never seen Godzilla, but I disagree with your view on The Day After Tomorrow. It’s certainly a big piece of crap, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch ironically; I got an especially big kick out of the idea that if you simply close the door behind you, you can outrun a fatal arctic chill. And the fact that the movie takes itself seriously is one of the pluses–it makes the pseudo-science that much easier to mock. (Although I’ll admit I am concerned by the fact that I heard numerous people talk about the movie as if it were a realistic portrayal of the threat of global warming. Global warming is real, people; glaciers appearing in New York City over the course of a weekend is not.)

    As for your thoughts about the look of Spielberg movies, I think the first one of his movies to display this style was Saving Private Ryan. Munich and War of the Worlds had a similar style, but his comedies since then–The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can–did not (I think). I think it worked for all three of those dramas (especially SPR), even War of the Worlds, which would have been a lot scarier with a better script and a better lead actor.

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