Monday, July 18, 2005

War of the Worlds

I tried unsuccessfully to write this without major spoilers, but I don't don't think I'm revealing too much. If you've read the book, seen the original version of the movie, or heard the (in)famous radio play, there definitely won't be anything new here. The movie is fairly true to the original, overall. The one big change they made (the origin of the alien war machines) I didn't like at all, since it didn't seem to make any sense. (I'll have to let you wonder about that comment -- see the film.) Other than that, the movie is a decently faithful rendition of the tale, told from the perspective of one New Yorker during the attack.

This blog entry is not really a review a of the movie, though. I am almost finished with Dibell's plot book, and one of the closing chapters is on pacing. Dibell makes the comment that a fiction story should take time to reflect during the story, to vary the pace somewhat during the course of the tale. She refers to a tale that is nothing but Big Scenes (action or otherwise) as a "string of pearls" -- lots of connected bumps, but not a smoothly-flowing narrative. The movie version of War of the Worlds is, in many ways, a lot like Dibell's string of pearls. I do realize that this was, to a certain extent, Spielberg's intent. The movie moves forward at an incredible pace from one disaster scene to the next. Some of the disasters that befall the protagonist (Tom Cruise) are pretty unlikely -- he has both the phenomenal bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time over and the almost Jedi-like senses to allow him to escape disaster. There really is very, very little in the way of character development in the movie -- again, not Spielberg's goal, but in my opinion that makes for a less satisfying tale. Spielberg also plants a number of scenes in the movie that serve no purpose other than to explain and prepare for something that will happen later in the film. I'm going to have to talk about some specifics here, but it's not much of a spoiler. In the opening of the film, Cruise's character is a dock worker who seems to have an incredibly good eye for operating a crane. Shortly after he drops a huge crate onto a rail car, there is a somewhat gratuitous scene with the foreman, who is trying to get Cruise to work an extra shift (he says "half of Korea is coming into port" which is pretty dumb, considering the movie takes place in New York). The foreman says he needs Cruise because he's the only one who can unload 40 crates in an hour. You're left scratching your head as to the purpose of this scene (Cruise more or less ignores the foreman through the whole scene, so it's hard to see the importance). I assume, though, that this is establishing Cruise's character's almost supernatural reflexes that get him out of trouble. Another useless scene has the aliens leaving their ship to investigate a basement in which Cruise and family happen to be hiding. The aliens aren't scouting, they're just poking around looking at trinkets. In no other case do the aliens leave their ships, and why would they bother with a basement in a rural house if they wanted to? It turns out that in order for the ending to make sense, we need to see what a healthy alien looks like. At the end, you see a dying alien who is obviously sick -- but you wouldn't know what he was supposed to look like if you hadn't seen a healthy one 30 minutes before. There are other examples, but this gives you the idea. The family relationships that supposedly form the subplot aren't very well developed. It almost seems like an afterthought to the horror of being invaded. There are a number inconsistencies in the plot (if the aliens planned this extermination millions of years ago, why wait until the place is overrun with humans to mount the effort?), but they don't end up being really important to the overall goal of the movie -- lots and lots of blowing things up.

Planting hints to make a later scene make sense is absolutely necessary in our writing. Readers will cry foul almost immediately if you pull something out of a hat at the last minute. But when you are placing those hints, don't make the hints the purpose of the scene! Work them into the narrative as secondary details. Make sure the scene carries its own weight first, then add the foreshadowing. As an action flick, War of the Worlds works. My wife, who didn't know the story, was jumping and tense through many parts of the movie. Spielberg's version definitely moves -- continuously, quickly. If that was his goal, he definitely succeeded. But even my wife, who enjoyed the film, said that there really wasn't much plot to it at all. That makes for a cotton candy story: Great as going down, but forgotten within minutes when it is finished.

No comments: