War of the Worlds (2005)
Spielberg's adaptation of War of the Worlds is glossy and Hollywoody but has its merits, not the least of which is Dakota's role as Rachel.
The first Spielberg film I saw was E.T. I was just a kid, all young and impressionable, and I fully recall the sense of awe and magic that movie left me. It also left me with a sizeable crush on Drew Barrymore. But where in E.T. Spielberg wanted to foster a genuine concern for that lovable little guy, in War of the Worlds Spielberg intends to scare the hell out of you. And he does a passable job.
The film opens with an introduction to Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise. Ray is a borderline asshole, who has weekend custody of his two kids only to treat them with a kind of benign neglect. His oldest, Robbie, is the paragon of teenaged angst and holds an open contempt for his father. His youngest, Rachel, played by Dakota Fanning, is a claustrophobic but otherwise normal 10-year-old of above average intelligence. Rachel likes holistic foods like hummus. Con. But Rachel also thinks Tivo is cool. Pro. Big pro.
If you've read my other reviews of Dakota, then you know I'm incapable of giving an unbiased review of anything she's had her hand in. She simply can do no wrong in my eyes. If Dale weren't here to keep me honest, I'd be inclined to give all her movies a perfect 5. Even her extremely bad ones, like Hansel & Gretel. So keep this little disclosure in mind when you read the rest of this review.
The movie wastes little time in getting to the action. A freakish electrical storm develops, and Ray calls Rachel outside to watch. Freakish turns destructive and frightening, and the two run for cover in the house. "Lightning never strikes twice in the same spot," Ray tells his daughter. Well, this lightning does. Over twenty times. Ray, being the jerk he is, leaves his frightened little daughter alone in the house so he can go investigate. And here's where things get cool.
Big time destruction. Exploding buildings. Incinerated people. We encounter these enormous, menacing machines called Tripods that do all this and more. The chaos of this film is extremely well done; it is palpable. The crowd, Ray among them, begins frantically fleeing the streets while the Tripods deal a badass hand of armageddon. Ray manages to avoid death by instant vaporization and finds his way home. He is obviously shaken and confused, and sits down on the floor, staring off into space. Rachel points to the thick layer of white dust all over him and asks, "What's that stuff?" The mood was appropriately tense, but I couldn't help laughing inwardly as the image of Charlton Heston shouting "It's people!" popped into my head.
For the rest of this movie, we follow Ray and his kids while they evade the Tripods. This is much more interesting than it sounds. When the action happens, it is delivered hard and fast. Unlike the original radio drama, we experience the film from the perspective of an ordinary Joe and his family just trying to survive the relentless destruction and chaos. I have to admit, I appreciated how Spielberg handled this. If Ray doesn't see it, neither do we. I found this kept the fear much more tenable.
War of the Worlds has some interesting and original ideas on the global annihilation theme, as opposed to the been-there-done-that approaches of movies like Independence Day and Mars Attacks!. (Of course, the main thing Mars Attacks! had going for it was Natalie Portman.) Unlike Will Smith's character in ID4, Ray is not a quasi superhero. He gets his ass kicked good and hard just like the rest of the crowd. I found it very believable that he manages to stay alive by sheer luck, with a hint of good instinct sprinkled in.
In case there was ever any doubt, Dakota delivers an excellent performance. Her character is a departure from Dakota's frequent portrayal of a little girl who is mature and wise beyond her years. Rachel is smart and witty, but also frightens like you'd expect from a typical 10-year-old. She cries. She screams. She clings to her brother (but not so much to her father) for protection. She screams. She has panic attacks. She's constantly inquisitive. She screams. I heard engineers at Dolby were brought in specifically to address the fact that Dakota screamed at frequencies well above what their equipment was capable of recording. (That is, of course, made up.) If you get the impression that Dakota's screaming got a bit on my nerves you'd be wrong, because nothing Dakota does could ever annoy me. But that little body of hers sure can generate an impressive amount of sound.
Dakota's performance of Rachel presents a little girl who is smart (but not smart like Pita in Man on Fire) and strong (but not strong like Allie in Taken), but also needs her share of protecting and comforting. Dakota exudes these attributes quite naturally. When you see her, you just want to scoop her up and take her away from all manner of badness. I'm certainly not the only one who feels that way. Just ask Sean Penn, Mike Myers, Denzel Washington, and Tom Cruise. (Although Myers also thinks Dakota is edible. Just a little bit out of the shoulder. Nibble nibble.)
Everything in this movie looks good. The cinematography looks good, which you'd expect from Spielberg. The special effects look good, which you'd expect from ILM. Tom Cruise looks good (and I mean that in the most heterosexual way possible). And Dakota looks good. Of course. And her outfit is great.
War of the Worlds is by no means perfect. It's an extremely entertaining movie with fun ideas, but the movie doesn't pose fundamentally thoughtful questions. The ending is cliched and wanting. The scene in Tim Robbins' basement is much longer than it needs to be. There is a mob scene that is twice as cynical about human nature as I am (and that's saying something). Overall the movie is a 3.5. As for Dakota, I wanted to give her a 4.5. But Dale argued that Rachel really is a mediocre role for Dakota, and by our scoring criteria, we have to give her a 4. I feel dirty. It's Dakota!
Still, even at 3.5 stars, this movie comes highly recommended. And if you're even the slightest fan of Dakota's, not seeing this movie isn't an option.