Friday, July 08, 2005

Spielberg's War

"War of the Worlds" was better than I expected, which was something on the pedestrian level of "Batman Begins." It transcended its own blockbuster hype and really made me belatedly begin to think of Steven Spielberg as a real auteur.

Of course, Spielberg is not really interested in aliens or spaceships or any other sci-fi stuff. In this respect he could not differ more from George Lucas, who really thinks aliens and spaceships are cool and interesting and worth forging a story around.

What Spielberg really likes more than anything else is showing people under pressure; what do people act like in dire straits? The crisis is different — sharks, combat, the Holocaust, dinosaurs, aliens — but the focus is always on characters in crisis, not on what is causing the crisis. (Raiders of the Lost Ark is an exception, but doesn't really count, since the whole conception was Lucas's, not Spielberg's.) This really comes out clearly in "War of the Worlds" when Ray's car is attacked by other refugees: this is the scariest scene in the movie, and it could take place in a war movie or a dinosaur movie or a movie about a big storm a-comin'. The people are just as scary as the aliens, if not more so. Spielberg excels at this kind of film.

(Compare the superficially similar Twister; there is a plot about men, women, relationships and competition, etc., but it's just machinery to keep people encountering those awesome tornadoes. If Spielberg had made it, the tornadoes would just be machinery to put these people in extreme situations and see what happens to them.)

There were what seemed to me some references to other Spielberg movies. The burgeoning cloud with lightning flashing within, which conceals aliens, reminded me of Close Encounters, as does a later scene when characters are transfixed in an alien spotlight; the basement scene was a lot like the one in Jurassic Park when the raptors attack in the hotel kitchen; the combat scenes are inevitably like those in Saving Private Ryan; an alien who is first noticed as a grasping hand is reminiscent of certain parts of E.T. I don't know if Spielberg is repeating himself or not, but maybe the references to his other movies with aliens are intentional and ironic. The aliens are E.T.'s evil twins.

Visual references to 9/11 are sprinkled throughout, yet another sign that Spielberg is not really thinking about extra-terrestrials. His message for us in this movie is not unlike the messages in his other movies: "Don't give up, you can get through this." It's not deep, but it's timely.

The previews were also interesting. Every movie looks good in trailers, but I was pleased at the overall look of the Narnia movie, and even "King Kong" looks like it might be worthwhile.

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