I wonder how American cinema in the new millennium will be studied a few decades down the road. As amorphous as the '90s? As circumscribed as the '80s? Or, more likely, as paranoid as the '70s? Post-9/11 trauma can be easily read into the smallest of screen tremors, but the truth is that, following Land of the Dead, the retooled War of the Worlds is the second big-budget summer flick to envision full-on systematic breakdown in so many weeks. Forget the puerile "darkness" of Batman Begins -- this is the most vivid apocalypse snapshot in ages, all courtesy of Steven Spielberg. Steven Spielberg! The fact that Hollywood's most benevolent blockbuster-dispenser has visualized one of the most viscerally disquieting experiences of the season proves (yet again) how the "commercial entertainer" tag habitually hung on him by lazy reviewers fails to come to terms with the various inner, contradictory tensions roaming within an artist. The story is H.G. Wells' chestnut, of course, updated by Josh Friedman and David Koepp to shift the main focus from scrambling scientists to the filmmaker's treasured Mr. Middle-Class America scenario, though even Spielberg's usual suburban-clan prologue is in ashes: the tone's hard and bitter as New Jersey dockworker Tom Cruise comes home to spend time with estranged offspring Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin, unaware of the hell about to break loose.
It's no wonder that a full-scale invasion of the planet by ravenous aliens will coincide with the renewal of Cruise's parental responsibilities in caring for his kids; what is wondrous is the expressive intensity with which Spielberg evokes the horror and chaos of the dismantlement of mankind's cosmic complacency. Skies blacken into sinister spirals, lightning strikes home, cars stop dead in the street; a crack on the street keeps growing until a church is sheared in half before the pavement sinks in and whirring, spider-limbed machines crawl out to meet the unbelieving masses with vaporizing death-rays -- like the first murder in Minority Report, this opening movement could easily be released as a short and hailed as a masterpiece. No time to waste explaining why the intergalactic predators have settled on pulverizing Earth, for the narrative is an implacable tension-tightener, a series of jaw-droppers -- a bridge comes tumbling down, every car and truck excruciatingly individualized; Cruise leaves a basement hideout to find the remains of downed airplanes smoldering outside; bodies clutter up a river; a mob of survivors desperately smashes the windows of the family's SUV with bloodied hands; a train zips by, every coach in flames. Everywhere they go, the tripodal alien walkers are there, scooping people from overturned ships to irrigate their new territory with human blood; the invaders' ominous bass-shriek traces the changes since the friendly five-bar greeting of the Close Encounters visitors.
Spielberg's imagery is closer to Haneke's Time of the Wolf than to the juvenile theatrics of Independence Day, and the present-tense alarm of Armageddon is spiked with deliberate World Trade Center nods: "Is it the terrorists?" Fanning asks of the tumult, while Cruise flees an alien rampage covered in victim-dust and walls get plastered with missing-people posters. Like last year's richly confused The Terminal, War of the Worlds is a post-9/11 reaction encased in blockbuster skin, though with the harshness unrelieved by the earlier picture's sense of human variety -- "not war but extermination," says shotgun-toting survivalist Tim Robbins to Cruise, moments after he's seen young Chatwin vanish into a fireball confrontation between aliens and the military. And yet, and yet... Spielberg can't resist concretizing the hissing, slimy creatures on the screen for a Jurassic Park rehash, the single sickly tentacle from the 1953 version turned into a full Stan Winston creation. If the film blessedly avoids the divine intimations of Byron Haskin's Eisenhower-era adaptation, the unveiling of the aliens nevertheless cheapens the horror and indicates how, whereas George A. Romero mines social unrest as internal wounds, Spielberg safely (if no less fully felt) locates it in bugs from outer space. Both filmmakers can see to the other side of the apocalypse, but Spielberg can only envision the unquestioning restoration of order, complete with family reunion. Still, escape hatch or not, War of the Worlds remains a dark dazzler from the most fascinatingly paradoxical American artist since John Ford.
The art-house realm of Yes is quite a few miles away from the cineplex units where War of the Worlds is to unfurl, although Sally Potter's uncompromisingly arty conceptual-piece is, similarly, a response to the eroded certainties of our contemporary world. "Have you ever seen a body full of bullets," He (Simon Abkarian) asks She (Joan Allen), revving up for their midway-point accusatory venom match -- "Terrorist!" "Imperialist!" "Bigot!" "Bitch!" All in verse, timed with an iambic pentameter for full Shakespearian balletics and Brechtian distance. He is a former surgeon from Beirut now dicing meat at a London restaurant with a rainbow trio of pissed-off co-workers, while She is an Irish-American biologist muddling through a frozen marriage to an emotionally corseted politician (Sam Neill); steamy sex is already in the cards for the two, though since the woman watching over them is the director of Orlando and The Man Who Cried, any chances for a conventional cultural-clash affair are chalked off early on. Abkarian massages Allen's thighs during a café rendezvous, dances on a bedspread and constructs rhapsodic bedroom terminology for her ("mistress," "divinity," etc.), yet he bristles with anger, and She to him comes to stand for the American "dragon;" herself far from prejudice-free, Allen yearns for some liberating exoticism. Can a beach tumble in paradisiacal Cuba be far?
Despite the heavy luggage (gender, racial, religious and social politics, illegal aliens, a "deepening shame," confessions to God into digital cameras), Yes is ultimately lighter, airier fare than Spielberg's cosmic blitzkrieg. Potter's overloaded puzzlers go hand-in-hand with a feel for humor and life that suggests Peter Greenaway magically imbued with respect for human bodies and human emotions. By turns garrulous and impressionistic, this comedy is densely layered with tilted angles, motion blurs, and overheard thoughts, to say nothing of free-floating peculiarities -- maids periodically sneaking peaks into the camera, "the world is made of sulfur..." echoing plaintively through Allen's memory, Neill doing B.B. King air-guitar to no one in particular. The heroine's dying commie aunt rattles off an extended internal monologue upon a hospital visit, rivaled only by the soliloquies of daffy housekeeper Shirley Henderson on the messiness of living, casually writ out of tub-scrubbing routines. Potter's dedicated pretentiousness would be a pain to endure without the humanizing sensuality of her style and, more importantly, of her actors (Allen, safely into lush milfdom, should by now be done with portraying desiccated suburbanites), which turns an exercise in artiness into an unexpectedly life-affirming experience. Spielberg handling the dark, Potter the light -- quite an interesting summer this is turning out to be.
Reviewed July 7, 2005.