War of the Worlds is a modern day adaptation of H.G. Wells classic novel by director Steven Spielberg. This tale of alien invasion and survival had been on Spielberg's list for years. The out of this world VFX work was provided by ILM under the supervision of Senior VFX Supervisor Dennis Muren, VFX Supervisor Pablo Helman and Animation Supervisor Randy Dutra (who specifically came back for this project at Spielberg's request).
Much like the 1953 scifi classic film, Spielberg chose to transplant the story to present day America. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a divorced New Jersey dock worker. For a weekend he gets to take care of his estranged children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin). Not long after they arrive at his home, a freak electric storm (that makes everything electrical stop working) marks the arrival of imposing alien tripod war machines that destroy everything on their path. It's up to Ray to take care of his children and try to survive the invasion of the unstoppable alien menace.
Adapting a science fiction work is always fraught with danger, and more so with a true classic like The War of the Worlds, because the tendency to emphasize the action and effects. If anyone could do it, it was Spielberg and for the most part he has succeeded. Setting the story in the present day does lose one of the most important elements from the original novel: Wells social critique of European colonialism, but Spielberg does preserve the basic premise of our misguided conception of our dominance of this planet and Nature. The film becomes basically becomes a depiction of the fight for survival and human nature ion the face of the most extreme circumstances.
Unlike his most recent scifi projects, A.I. and Minority Report which were very thought provoking pieces, Spielberg chose the rollercoaster ride: the action and tension never really let up much throughout the rest of the film.In a sense it's Spielberg returning to many of his classics and fans will find many stylistic choices and the intensity of films like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, high octane dramas. What makes this film much more interesting than the normal fare of this type is Spielberg choosing to stick on the personal level, never do we see politicians or scientists telling us the overall picture of the story or trying to defeat the aliens. We experience at the personal level of everyday people which is what make the film truly thrilling and and even scary. Fear of the unknown is a big part of the film, your friend or neighbor might be killed in an instant right next to you, people are introduced just to not be seen again. The unknown extends to the overall confusion the characters experience with information given that is clearly bogus or they have no way of knowing. At one point characters spout that the alien machines have been buried all along, even for a million years, which is totally bogus of course.
The unknown also helps develop the characters, we don't have heroes or larger than life people to come and save the day. The personal view of the events from the common man POV accentuates the personal failings of not only the characters but our society as well. Ray Ferrier is a semi-deadbeat dad who can't connect with his children or has patience with them even though he tries his best. Robbie is a slacker and openly rebels against his father. He has more sense of duty but his impulsiveness makes him draw wrong decisions. Rachel is much wiser than his father and brother but also is a slight hypochondriac and slightly whiny like many kids her age. In the larger context the failings of society are compounded and the law of the jungle prevails. In one of the most scariest sequences, Ray and his family, who have the only working car in miles, are mobbed, with people tearing the windshield with their bare hands. Just as well we are shown characters summoning courage and try to do what is right. This is evident when Ray becomes fiercely protective of her daughter after they take refuge with Harlan Ogilvy (played by Tim Robbins and another reference to the novel) after he starts realizing how insane and unstable Harlan is. Sometimes doing the right thing involves doing the unthinkable. It's these moments between the action that give a dramatic core to the film and are brought to life by the powerful performances of the 3 leads.
If there's any weakness in the film, it's the ending of the personal story in the film. About 2/3 into the movie Ray is forced to make a "Sophie's Choice" decision when the alien onslaught suddenly appears. Unfortunately this incredibly powerful moment is diminished by the last shots with the Ferrier clan and seems an unnecessary throwback to the happy endings of the older Spielberg films. That aside (and besides a few minor plot holes) that movie is relentless and a very satisfying experience in the end.
If there was one thing you could expect from this movie, is that the visual would probably not disappoint. Throughout the long collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Senior VFX Supervisor Dennis Muren have never disappointed, not only creating some of the most memorable shots in film history but also pushing the envelope in VFX work. Once more they have captured lightning in the bottle.
Instead of discussing the work in terms of disciplines (say animation, compositing, miniatures, matte paintings, etc.) it's better to discuss the work in terms of what it portrays: the fantastical elements like the tripods and aliens and the one depicting real world elements like destruction of buildings and the like, although there is constant overlap of both. It's this overlap that makes the work look so real. While clearly a machine like a tripod would be impossible to build in real life, the close POV shots Spielberg uses in telling the story bring a reality to the VFX rarely accomplished. We see the dirt slowly slide of the tripods frame, how it's long spindly legs crush vehicles and buildings as the chaotic mob tries to escape, people disintegrated right beside our protagonist, a tripod overturning a ferry, etc. It's even hard to grasp that things that would normally be accomplished for real, like a snaking eye probe tentacle are actually mostly digital creations. It's particularly tricky when you have to do creatures like the aliens of the film (which are somewhat reminiscent of the ID4 aliens) which are also tripodal which is always tricky to animate. Although have 3 appendages is unnatural the way they shift and move around the complex environment really make them feel alive. The VFX, coupled with a superb sound work (the tripod sounds are truly frightening coupled with their sight) makes for one hell of an experience.
The best way to describe some of the VFX shots in the film is by labeling them the best most visible invisible effects on display. This is superbly demonstrated during the first tripod appearance. As the war machine starts appearing, the pavement cracks and suddenly collapses, building start cracking and collapsing and the machine slowly emerges from the dirt. Much of these was shot on a real location and usually are accomplished via a good dose of practical effects and work on controlled sets. But in these sequence it's about impossible to distinguish the trickery. At one point the a low lying camera tracks the cracking pavement and Tom Cruise's feet as he tries to avoid it. In another instance we see the location from high up and see the buildings being displaced around the sinkhole. The amount of destruction is so realistic it feels as if the location was actually bulldozed for the film. Spielberg also resorts to using the virtual camera technique. Although not as subtle and refined as how David Fincher uses it it's certainly effective as the camera pulls inside a vehicle Ray and his family are using to both show their arguments while then pulling back to show the devastation of the EMP pulse.
Probably one of the most impressive aspects of the work is the compressed schedule in which they were accomplished. It wasn't until late 2004 that the film was greenlit and filming started around the last quarter of 2004 with a firm release date. Usually this might spell trouble for the VFX work. But the overall work is nothing short of jaw dropping in all aspects: their seamlessness, their technical complexity, the overall visuals and art direction, etc. all mesh perfectly creating some of the most stunning work of the year. Even the few weaker shots (the all too perfect microorganisms, one wide shot of the xenoformed landscape, a couple of fire shots in a speeding train) never really pull you out of the overall experience. When all is said and done, War of the Worlds will probably give Star Wars Episode III a run for its money.
The Final Verdict
War of the Worlds feels like a throwback to the classic adventure tales and thrillers from Spielberg, albeit in a much mature tone. The film rarely lets up in its intensity, and while not the most faithful adaptation it both preserves the core ideas and the emotional backbone hat make the movie more than you simple Summer popcorn fluff. Once again the Spielberg/ILM partnership has truly brought us unforgettable imagery which helps tell the story. War of the Worlds might be one of the most memorable VFX projects of the year.