Friday, April 3, 2009

Hollywood and the Remake Machine Part II

"The War of the Worlds"

I love the H. G. Wells book "The War of the Worlds" and it is a shame that we haven't had a proper visual adaptation of the book.

The original George Pal movie version is considered a classic of sci-fi cinema and deservedly so. It isn't particularly faithful to the book, but the constraints of budget and studio pressures are mostly to blame for that. The inclusion of a love story (at the insistence of a studio exec) does not, in my opinion, detract for the overall theme. Changing the setting and the period were necessitated by the budget as was the replacement of the Martian tripods with the manta-like war machines. The War Machines, brilliantly designed by Albert Nozaki, are timeless and unforgettable. They are sleek and elegant but also exude enough menace to be instantly threatening on sight. Where Pal had to make concessions, he tried to make up for in subtle nods to the book. Because of the lack of tripods (though the WMs are said to glide along on three invisible beams, like legs), he gave us a creature with a three-sectioned eye, three fingers and when Forrester finds Sylvia, it is in the third church. Pal also used the subliminal trick of having the Martians always advancing from right to left for the initial invasion. This is opposite to how we read and write, so the impression is there of something moving against the grain or against the normal flow. The heavy religious tone of the film was a reflection of Pal's own faith and the tone of the end of the book. Overall, the original film has a decent plot, cast and special effects and works well to get the main gist of the book onto the screen. Though a bit hokey by modern film audience standards, if viewed as a product of its time, it still holds up as a great bit of film making.

I've read a lot of criticism of the Dreamworks remake of WOTW and can't say that I agree with most of it. It seems to be cool to trash Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise these days and although I have no love for Cruise or his personal beliefs, in WOTW he delivers what is probably his best performance of any of his films. The only real problem I have with Spielberg's work of recent years, including this film, is the insistence of sticking kids and the "joys" of parenthood into nearly everything. The book focuses on a lone man (and separately, his brother) trying to survive an unimaginable series of events to a less than exciting conclusion. That's not to say it's a bad conclusion, because it isn't, it just isn't bombs exploding and the bad guys being machine-gunned in slow motion. The fact that neither film version alter that ending much proves how powerful, if cinematically unexciting, the original ending is.

The inclusion of the "hero" scene where Cruise's character, Ray Ferrier, takes out a Tripod single-handed was, in my opinion, unnecessary. I understand that Spielberg is trying to change how the daughter views her father, but if she hasn't gotten the message that he's taking care of her by the end, she never will. The whole sequence strikes me as being a concession to Cruise's ego more than real character development. The same can be said about Ferrier being the only one who notices that the Tripod shields are down. I don't think I would have minded that as much if the earlier sequence hadn't been there.

Where this film really falls short is, for me, in the design work. The tripods look okay but don't really strike the sense of dread that the original film's machines do. They look more run-of-the-mill anime (as do most things these days) and resemble a jet engine wearing a hat and a sad expression. The design of the creatures themselves is unremarkable and bland. Fairly similar to the aliens of "Independence Day", they fail to instill the same sense of fear as that film's aliens or the original Pal aliens. The Pal creature was small, slimy and ALIEN looking, void of what we would recognize as a face. The aliens in Spielberg's film look more like emaciated people with big summer hats. The other-worldliness of having three legs and short arms on their undercarriage is trumped by having a very humanoid face. They should have gone back to the book for inspiration, but since Spielberg has repeatedly stated that his aliens are not "Martians" one has to wonder why call it "War of the Worlds"?

Problems with designs aside, the DW film is a decent adaptation of the book and remake of the Pal film. The scenes of mass panic and the heat ray, the feelings of despair and loss are very well executed and the inclusion of Tim Robbins' character hearkens to the Curate character of the book and goes a long way to help develop Ferrier from a deadbeat dad into a responsible adult. I think the change from cylinders falling to the 'they've always been here' lightning bolt jockeys was a mistake, but as the method of arrival only serves to start the action, it can be overlooked. The effects are well handled and realistic for the most part and I think that although it won't replace the Pal film in SF history, it can stand up with it to be counted along with it, if not beside it.