Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rethinking Spielberg's War of the Worlds

I'm sitting here at work watching War of the Worlds with the students while they work on projects, and I forgot how good this movie is.  It got me thinking...have I missed something about what Spielberg accomplished in the 2000's?  I mean he made to sure-fire masterpieces Minority Report and Munich, a big-budget (and dare I say arty) summer blockbuster in War of the Worlds, and not to mention a movie I still haven't seen that many consider his greatest achievement of the decade, A.I.  So...this got me thinking: should I do a retrospective on Spielberg's 2000-2009 output?  There are still some films I need to see (the obvious one being A.I.), and I think that I could benefit from revisiting his films -- most notably War of the Worlds since I'm half watching it now (and am damn impressed with it) while the kids do their projects -- like The Terminal (didn't think much of it when I first saw it) and Catch Me If You Can.  I'm considering starting in 2001 with A.I. and rethinking his oeuvre the past decade and giving the man the due he deserves for a decade of quality work. I alone on thinking that War of the Worlds is a near-great action movie?


  1. I really need to do some kind of Spielberg retro/catch-up myself. Depending on which film of his I'm watching, I go back and forth between thinking he's a genius entertainer and an aggravating over-reacher. I tend to like him best when he's the most light on his feet: I enjoy the hell out of Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, both of which have deeper subtexts and ideas and emotions but which are basically just witty, nonstop entertainments on the surface. A lot of his other stuff strikes me as overblown and emotionally/thematically stunted.

    And yeah, War of the Worlds is in the latter category. It has some stunning imagery, sure, but I can't remember being more aggravated in a theater, first by the blatant and rather cheap exploitation of handheld camerawork to evoke the on-the-ground videos from the WTC collapse, and then by the sheer idiocy of the ending, which suggests that all the horror was just a nightmare from which these people needed to wake up and everything would be OK again.

  2. Hi Kevin, love your blog. Spielberg has done some spectacular work this decade, but I really think War Of The Worlds is more than Munich or Minority Report or A.I. his masterpiece of the 00's. It has real cinematic purity, and I really admire its anti-narrativistic structure.

  3. Although I guess I should qualify that with the huge "BUT" that, although I didn't have the problems with it Ed did, his criticisms seem fair. It does play out like a feverish dream.

  4. Ed:

    Yes, everything you say about the ending is true; however, I think the film succeeds in spite of the problem at the end of the film. It's a visceral experience, and one that is bathed in beautiful imagery. I had forgotten how impressive the opening of the film is. Yes, Spielberg -- at his worst -- is heavy-handed (I mean seriously...Cruise wears a Yankee hat...his kid wears a Red Sox hat; that's laying it on pretty damn thick, but sometimes his best -- those moments when he reaches into his visual bag of tricks -- outweighs the inerrant problems that come with a Spielberg film. I still think he's a master of blending CGI with classical filmmaking techniques (Minority Report is a good example of that), and I'll always appreciate Spielberg for not getting too swept away with technology and letting the Hollywood he helped create -- love it or hate it -- slip away.

    Like you I love the subtexts found in the aforementioned Minority Report and a film you mention that I love, Catch Me If You Can. Many people list A.I. as one of his best, and one of the best of the decade, so I need to see that soon, too.

    I think in the next month or so, if I can find the time, I might take a look at these films again. Especially The Terminal, a film whose fans claimed it was an homage to Tati...however I didn't feel that while watching it.

  5. Doniphon:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I'm glad you like the blog. I like what you say about the "cinematic purity" of the film. Like you I understand Ed's problems with the film, but I think the good far outweighs the bad here.

    Thanks again for dropping by.

  6. A.I.'s big problem is that it ends 5 times before it actually ends, if you know what I mean. It was OK, I guess; I don't remember it well enough to offer any more substantial criticism.

    And for some reason, I have a hard time imagining sitting through The Terminal. Tom Hanks mostly just drives me up a wall with his smug blandness, so the thought of him playing a lovable (and Tatiesque???? yeah right!) immigrant is like cinematic nails on a chalkboard. Maybe I'd love it, who knows, but the prospect isn't exactly enticing.

  7. Yeah. I don't remember anything about the movie...which speaks to its lack of resonance. I didn't understand the Tati references, either, but I seem to remember people thinking those things when the film came out. I don't know. I'll have to revisit it I guess...

  8. I remember watching WotW while at the beach, on a 20" TV, and thinking that it was fairly entertaining. It's one I think deserves another viewing by me, especially to see the visuals on a better screen, but I don't remember it being great or anything -- mostly it was good for what it was.

    The one thing that sticks out to me is the drawn out scene with Tim Robbins. I can't remember if I thought it was really good or if I laughed and rolled my eyes at it, but I do remember it seemingly going on for about 30 minutes.

    But sure, go ahead and do the retrospective. Spielberg brings in a lot of different types of comments, so it should be at least interesting.

  9. I think a series on this period would be a great idea.

    If you were interested in turning it into a Blog-o-thon I know I'd be interested to contribute a piece about Catch Me If You Can (His true Masterpiece this decade). Maybe one on Minority Report as well.

  10. I'm planning to do a retrospective of his whole career (along with De Palma and finishing up John Carpenter, proving yet again that my reach exceeds my grasp), and I'm very much looking forward to covering his work this decade. I actually think that, of all people, the great escapist Spielberg focused on 9/11 more than any other major filmmaker and made some of his best films. I haven't seen WotW since it came out when I was pushing 16, and I'm very eager to study its 9/11 imagery/themes now.

    And a quick perusal of my blog will reveal my feelings for A.I. (hint: I agree with Rosenbaum).

  11. A.I.'s big problem is that it ends 5 times before it actually ends, if you know what I mean. It was OK, I guess; I don't remember it well enough to offer any more substantial criticism.

    Amen to that, a problem I would argue has plagued his later work. Remember when Spielberg knew how and when to end his movies: Duel, Jaws, Raiders, E.T. all had great cappers. Strong. Satisfying. Ever since he went back and padded the climax to Close Encounters, it's as if he doesn't know when to quit. Even Catch Me if You Can wore out its welcome in the last 30 minutes.

    But, short answer: Yes, I would greatly enjoy a retrospective. Go for it.

  12. Troy:

    I would love to watch War of the Worlds in your theater room. And you're right about the Tim Robbins scene. I was busy at work today while that scene was happening (it's no coincidence that the students started working hardest on their projects during that scene), but it definitely drags.

  13. EDJ:

    It would have to be an unofficial blog-a-thon. I'm thinking I can only organize one of those a year, hehe. But yes...if I decide to do this I will let people know and I will gladly link to other articles about Spielberg in 00's.

  14. Jake:

    I really look forward to that retrospective. You among others I trust in the blogosphere (not to mention A.O. Scott) claim that A.I. is a masterpiece. I look forward to watching it as soon as I can.

    I'm glad so many people think this mini-retrospective would be a good idea.

  15. Craig:

    He's certainly been a polarizing director in the last decade. It definitely sounds like A.I. is loved by those I trust and disliked by those I trust. I can't wait to watch it, hehe.

    Also, I didn't mind the meandering of Catch Me if You Can because I kind of liked just watching that movie. But yes...the stuff in France was a bit much...the movie definitely needed some trimming.

    But, I agree with you about the way he used to end his movies...they seemed a lot crisper than they are now...maybe it has something to do with his age. But you're right, he definitely didn't linger on his endings in the 70's/80's.

  16. My short answer, which I'm sure you could have easily guessed: hell yes.

    Like him or not, Spielberg is a major force in modern film making, and what's fascinating to me about Spielberg's filmography in the 00s is how this once 'crowd pleasing' director has become so polarizing, to both mainstream audiences and the critical community. Some people hate A.I> with a passion, some people (ahem, like me), think it's an absolute masterpiece (I'd go a step further and say it's up there with the greatest movies ever made, but they may get me in trouble!). War of the Worlds, in spite of making a ton of money, turned off a lot of mainstream audiences. Yes, the film is severely flawed on a certain level, but the imagery is arresting and I find the film to be a cathartic, haunting, beautiful channeling of 9/11 imagery. Ed says above that he found that exploitative; but what of films that blatantly hijack the imagery (Cloverfield, for example), but say nothing of the state of mind that the images themselves left us in? Spielberg carefully documents how a disaster of that magnitude affects the nuclear family, though to some that's the exact problem: the movie isn't a thrill-a-minute adventure (though obviously that's not Ed's criticism). So Spielberg is a film maker who's damned if he do and damned if he don't. Munich may have exemplified this more clearly than anything, as the film was simultaneously accused of being anti-Israel or anti-Arab, depending on your bias. Obviously it can't be both, so Spielberg is touching a raw nerve.

    Sorry for the length of the comment but I really think Spielberg's output this decade has been extraordinary. The only one I'm not crazy about, though I like it well enough, is Minority Report.

  17. And may I second the poster above who suggests a blogathon?

  18. Ryan:

    You know how it goes don't ever have to be sorry for a lengthy comment...especially one as good as what you posted here. Admittedly I only caught glimpses of what you guys are talking about with the September 11th and nuclear family metaphors, because like I said I was half-watching while helping some students with their projects, but the imagery was pretty obvious.

    I think the film actually has quite a few dramatic moments that work, thanks to Cruise's performance. And I think agree with you about the film overall...I definitely look forward to watching it again and giving it my undivided attention.

    As for Spielberg this decade: Unlike you I think Minority Report is a masterpiece. It reminded me of L.A. Confidential in how wonderfully Spielberg and his writer Scott Frank (a great screenwriter who turned out to be a good director with his 2007 film, The Lookout being one of the best surprises of that strong year) kept the plot's momentum from becoming tooconvoluted. Every time I watch that movie -- and I'll never forget how into it I was when I first saw it in the theater -- I am shocked how involved I get with the story. The scene where he takes Agatha and she sees their escape through a mall, mapping out for Anderton where to go and what to do is one of the best scenes of the movie.

    Like any Spielberg movie it takes a detour into farce (the eyeball doctor played by the dude from Fargo), but that's a brief stop that doesn't derail the film too badly. I think Minority Report -- and to some extent War of the Worlds -- is a perfect example of how masterful Spielberg is at appeasing both the summer popcorn movie fan, and the cinephile who looks for a film filled with not just entertainment, but social commentary and rich film allusions. I think Minority Report succeeds in that regard...even if that ending is a tad too tidy.

    Anyway...I think it's a damn fantastic neo-noir, and the best Philip Dick adaptation since Blade Runner.

    I'll give the blogathon idea some thought. It would be fun, and it seems that a lot of you would like the idea (so perhaps there would be some content there besides my own output).

    Thanks for the great comment, Ryan.

  19. I just wanted to add one more thing, Ryan (I was afraid if I added this to the previous post it would get cut off). I totally agree with you about how weird it is that Spielberg has become such a polarizing director this past decade. My friend Kyle is in film school right now at AFI to be a producer, and we talk a lot about the kinds of movies he wants to make. Since he wants to be a producer he understands the prescient need to make a buck; however, he also has great taste in films and wants to make something that is really important. Often we talk about Spielberg's career in this regard. He was a visionary, and whether you like what he did for the summer blockbuster or hate him for it, the man knew what he was doing and did it damn well. He dabbled in a few experiments like Empire of the Sun and 1941, but it wasn't until he was done making his big money makers in the 90's that he started thinking about his "prestige" pictures: Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan...both of which made money because of that "prestige" that was labeled on them, but two films where making a profit was never Spielberg's sole purpose for making them.

    However something funny happened after Saving Private Ryan and he started making a different kind of movie. I think perhaps he was satisfied with his career and the mark he left on the blockbuster and decided to something more experimental in the decade that would follow. I think Kubrick dying affected him deeply and after A.I. he wanted to make more cerebral films...which was something that he certainly didn't make a habit of producing before.

    Anyway, I just find it fascinating that in the 70's and 80's you had a filmmaker you created a meal ticket, and could continue to cash it in today to make boring blockbuster after boring blockbuster if he wanted to...but he chose to go a different route, and I think that's allowed him to experiment a bit this last decade and play around with different genres.

    Also, I like what you say about him being a filmmaker who is "damned if he do and damned if he don't"...especially in regards to Munich and how he pissed off both sides, proving, as you say, that he definitely touched a nerve.

  20. "However something funny happened after Saving Private Ryan and he started making a different kind of movie. I think perhaps he was satisfied with his career and the mark he left on the blockbuster and decided to something more experimental in the decade that would follow. I think Kubrick dying affected him deeply and after A.I. he wanted to make more cerebral films...which was something that he certainly didn't make a habit of producing before."

    That's the conclusion I reached when I was mulling over his stuff for my best of the decade post. I don't think he made Schindler's List simply to manipulate an audience and get awards, nor do I think he made Jurassic Park and SPR for the moolah, but the über-success of those films, even compared to his other smash hits, seemed to free him up to make the most challenging and meditative films of his career, even if they didn't necessarily succeed on all levels (I can't cast a decisive vote on Worlds until I see it again).

  21. I consider it more than "near-great." I was a big fan of this film since I saw it four times at the movies. It's a great movie. I love its interpretation of the Wells novel- actually remaining very faithful to key details. Love Cruise's character's devotion to his daughter. I love the tripods - the CGI and sound effects - and the gripping scenes. In my opinion, this is one of the best movies of the latter decade. Spielberg's recent movies have been flawed. This one is right on.

  22. Hokahey:

    Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you singled out the sound effects...which are great at eliciting chills. And I'm in total agreement with you about Crusie's character. Thanks for stopping by.

  23. I'm in agreement with most of you. WAR OF THE WORLDS is one of Spielberg's very best. It also makes for a qonderful post-9/11 diptych with his other film released that year, MUNICH. I should be posting my Best of 2005 later today or early tomorrow, and you will see it on there.

  24. I look forward to your list and your thoughts on the film, Tony. When I watch War of the Worlds again I'll have to immediately follow that up with Munich to see the similarities you're speaking on here.

  25. I think Spielberg is one of the top five directors whose 2000s work definitely calls out for a post-mortem. It strikes me as his most interesting distinctive period to date, even if it isn't characterized by his flat-out best film.

    FWIW, I think War of the Worlds is vastly underrated. And I loathed A.I. when I saw it for my first and only time in the theater, but so many Best of 2000s lists have cited it, I feel that I need to revisit it.

  26. Kevin, I just wanted to stop by the party, late as I might be. I just finished watching A.I. for my first time, and I definitely enjoyed it. It's a complex, challenging film and quite unlike anything I've ever seen by Spielberg (although I have some real gaps in my Spielberg of the last decade, never having seen either WAR OF THE WORLDS or (gulp!) MUNICH). I look forward to hearing your thoughts on A.I. once you've had a chance to take a look.