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3 Stars Movies

What makes Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds unique also sabotages it

Although easily overlooked among the Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise filmographies, I actually rather enjoy their 2005 War of the Worlds remake.

Unfortunately, what makes it unique also sabotages it:

It’s practically a requirement for the alien invasion genre that the protagonist be the big hero that saves the world. Refreshingly, Cruise’s character here is just a blue-collar guy trying to survive, minute-to-minute. Trying his best, making errors of judgement, and sometimes just wearily trudging along from incident to incident along with crowds of fellow refugees. Compare and contrast with the hyper-competent expert he typically plays: the world’s premiere spy, race car driver, or fighter pilot.

Tim Robbins, Tom Cruise, and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds

Although I’ll bet Cruise probably performed much of his own stunts as usual here, the film isn’t structured around major set pieces like much of his later work. Instead of watching Cruise actually jump out of an airplane, free climb, or crash a motorcycle, here he’s mostly seen operating shipping cranes and running away from stuff.

[spoilers for a 120 year old novel] The premise of the source material is inherently uncinematic, even if it is quoted directly in the prelude and coda by one of cinema’s greatest voices, Morgan Freeman. It’s just plain strange that no one from the creative, financial, or distribution teams insisted on reworking the material to give humanity (if not Cruise’s character himself) a more active role in defeating the aliens.

It’s also infected with that weird ultra-grainy cinematography in vogue at the time. I blame Ridley Scott for that, most evident in Hannibal and Black Hawk Down.

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1 Star Movies

Girls and Their Unicorns: Ridley Scott’s Legend

Ridley Scott’s 1986 fantasy experiment Legend features a very young Tom Cruise (before he was “Tom Cruise”), costarring opposite vats upon vats of glitter. Cruise’s performance is bizarre and high-pitched, composed of crouched poses and unfocused stares. But to be fair, how else would any actor portray an uncivilized wild-child with a weirdly mundane name like Jack? Mia Sara is unmemorable as Princess Lily, save for the spectacularly plunging neckline she sports in the second half of the film (during which many parents were no doubt covering the eyes of their innocents).

There is plenty of very pretty cinematography to be enjoyed, but this blogger regrets to report that Legend is awful and almost painful to sit through. I recall loving the roughly contemporary fantasy film The Dark Crystal (1982) as a child, but ruined the pleasant memory by watching it again as an adult and discovering it to be tedious and condescending (with, granted, some incredible puppetry and art direction). Perhaps if I had seen Legend as a kid I might feel similarly.

Tom Cruise in Legend
That nice Cruise boy

The entire plot hinges on the kinds of typically arbitrary rules that characterize the fantasy genre. Pay attention, kids: only a virgin can touch a unicorn, it seems, but alas, they should never do so, lest the sun set forever and the world be consumed by The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry). What’s a virgin, you ask? Shush.

Not inconsiderable running time is taken up with awkward slapstick involving midgets, de rigueur in every movie fantasy since Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Speaking of, Gilliam’s dark romp is by far the best of the 1980s heyday of fantasy movies — a genre not to return to prominence for almost two decades until the lucrative franchises Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Mia Sara in Legend
Girls and their unicorns! This can only end in tears.

Even the old-school optical special effects are crummy, for which it is no excuse to say the film came before the age of CGI. The unicorns’ rubber horns visibly wobble, and a fluttering Tinkerbell-like fairy creature is a painfully obvious little lightbulb mounted on a wire discernible even on a low-resolution TV screen. No inch of skin is left unpainted with glitter, and never have bubble machines worked so overtime since The Lawrence Welk Show. But perhaps the most puzzling detail of all is in the sound design: unicorns sing whalesong, evidently.

All sorts of questions arise as screenwriter William Hjortsbertg’s plot comes to its trainwreck conclusion: What happens to The Prince of Darkness’ evilly goading mother? In comparison, Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Beowulf script did not fail to explore the vast Freudian story potential of a monster’s manipulative mother. And where did the last surviving unicorn find its mate at the end? Did the unicorn killed earlier in the film revive somehow, and if so, why? Even Disney’s Bambi didn’t chicken out by resuscitating the murdered mother.

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3 Stars Movies

J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III is preposterous and exhausting

A few disconnected thoughts on J.J. AbramsMission: Impossible III:

I rue the day Terminator 2 (aka “T2“) came out and was a big hit; now every pre-ordained blockbuster comes abbreviated: ID4, LXG, AVP, X2, X3, and now of course M:I:III.

Like most summer action blockbusters, M:I:III is at first enjoyably preposterous but quickly becomes exhausting. Although the plot is incredibly complex, it has no throughline to thread it all together; it’s a series of sequences.

M:I:III is capped off with a truly terrible song by Kanye West. Of course it’s hard to top the version by U2’s rhythm section, but the producers could have covered themselves by picking somebody with a little more edge.

Like Michael Jackson, it’s now almost impossible to watch Tom Cruise perform without his public persona coloring everything. On the other hand, he’s nothing if not intense, so perhaps that works in his favor here.

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