Wednesday, June 29, 2005

'War of the Worlds' A Fatally Flawed Failure

Let me start this review off with two quotes.
Science Fiction is speculative fiction in which the author takes as his first postulate the real world as we know it, including all established facts and natural laws. The result can be extremely fantastic in content, but it is not fantasy; it is legitimate - and often very tightly reasoned - speculation about the possibilities of the real world. This category excludes rocket ships that make U-turns, serpent men of Neptune that lust after human maidens, and stories by authors who flunked their Boy Scout merit badge tests in descriptive astronomy.
Robert A. Heinlein from: Ray Guns And Spaceships, in Expanded Universe, Ace, 1981
Science fiction for me is a vacation, a vacation away from all the rules of narrative logic, a vacation away from physics and physical science. It just let's you leave all the rules behind and just kind of fly.
Steven Spielberg from: Reuters Movie News, Wednesday June 29
With Spielberg's words echoing in the back of my mind, I went into the movie with knives drawn ready to draw blood. I was not disappointed. From beginning to end I had all sorts of technical questions for the guy who leaves all the rules behind and just kind of flys:
  1. How could machines that large and that complex have been buried under ground, especially under large metropolitan areas, without having been discovered before now?
  2. Why were the machines were buried under the earth "1 million years ago" according to Ogilvy (Tim Robbins)? Why not just invade then and be done with the task?
  3. If they were buried that long ago how could they still be fully functional?
  4. If the invaders rode down the energy bolts into the buried walkers as the CBS news crew seemed to have recorded, then why couldn't the entire group of walkers have been similarly transported? For that matter, how did the walkers get here and how did they get buried?
  5. Well's original invaders were from Mars. Based on the knowledge of the time, Wells speculated that the Martians, if they existed, would live in an environment without germs. So it was easy to postulate that they would be brought low by our germs because they would have no resistance. But nearly a century has passed since that book was published and we earthlings have traveled to the moon and returned. We quarantined our returning astronauts precisely to avoid bringing in alien organisms that might have hurt us. I can't believe that an advanced civilization capable of the technology inherent in the walkers and of traveling to this world to wreck such havoc would not have thought about possibly fatal alien (to them) contagions. Especially if they had been around at least one million years (see point 2 above) they should have at least figured out that minor plot detail by now.
  6. The alien heat rays had the peculiar property of vaporizing humans to ash but not touching their clothing. Excuse me, but anything powerful (and hot enough) to turn us to ash, especially when we're mostly water, is more than adequate to turn the clothing to ash as well. What's more, there should have been nasty indirect burns on other people near targets that were directly hit.
  7. The EMP effects from the lightning strikes disabling electrical and electronic devices was a nice touch. But when the first walker appeared in the movie, there was a bystander camcording the whole thing.
  8. Etc, etc, etc.
And then, of course, there's the acting (or lack thereof) by all involved.
  1. Dakota Fanning screamed far too much for far too long. She was also a brat ("I have a bad back").
  2. If Justin Chatwin had taken out my vintage Mustang I'd have killed him first and then asked if he was all right. He was way too insubordinate and an overly petulant jerk. No normal male would have put up with that for very long (even a deadbeat dad like Cruise) without busting his chops.
  3. Tom Cruise was too pretty. Too buff, no tattoos, no spare tire as we all saw with the gratuitous shirtless scene early in the movie. And I don't care what anybody says, his acting in this movie was disjoint and unbelievable.
  4. Chatwin is separated from Cruise during a big attack scene where one of the walkers rises up over a hill wreathed in flame and smoke. Yet he miraculously makes it to Boston at the very end of the movie and is reunited with the family.
  5. Tim Robbin's acting engine seemed to be on idle the whole time he was on screen. I expected something harder edged in the Ogilvy character.
  6. Etc., etc., etc.
I've had enough of Cruise, Spielberg, and Fanning. A pox on all their houses. I will never again watch a movie in which they have a significant role.

Good Alternative Science Fiction

The idea of ancient invaders (Martians in this case) buried under the earth for millions of years and then coming back to menace us was the plot of 1967's "Quatermass and the Pit". I saw this movie on TV several years later and found it quite riveting. The movie raised the question: "What if our primate ancestors were modified in such a way that it gave rise to our current limited pyschic abilities?" (This was different from Kubrik's idea that an alien monolith nudged us towards intelligence in 1969's "2001".) The movie dropped lots of interesting hints and ideas (for example the area where the Martian machine was buried was named Hobb's (Devil's) Lane). The buildup was logical and relentless, from the time the Martian ship is first dug up by a construction crew working on the London underground until the Martian ship attempts to re-establish a lost Martian colony (triggering the latent psychic abilities rather horrifically at the end of the movie). I most enjoyed the movie because it was a heroic scientist, Dr. Matthew Roney, who gave his life to destroy the thing the Martian ship had become to save London.

If you want to read about alien invasions that do more than take one volume to cover, then you should read Harry Turtledove's WorldWar series. In this series of books Turtledove creates an alternative history where "the Race" attempts to invade the earth during our WWII. Harry Turtledove knows quite about history, and he uses historical figures (Stalin, Patton, Churchill) along with fictional characters to flesh out a world where the reptilian "Race" fight against humanity. The Race didn't fly here in faster-than-light ships, they have technology that is only a decade or so in advance of WWII technology, and the war is bloody and brutal on both sides. It is an adult's alien invasion story.

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