Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ogilvy isn’t even real! - War of the Worlds (2005)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, War Horse.

Some (not all) of Spielberg’s post-millennial endeavors. They came, most went. There was some critical appreciation, no doubt, along with respectable box office business. But, ya ever get the feeling that if any one or more of these titles had been helmed as is by any other, particularly newcomer director, such would probably be regarded now as modern classics? There was a time when Steven Spielberg made a movie, critics and audiences alike all stopped and held their breath. He’d do something authentic with a set piece or moment of suspense, wielding that uncanny showmanship magic of his, and the movie-going masses would glaze over with awe.

In recent years, however, his efforts have been met with a kind of, how shall we say, acceptance; Spielberg as usual. And that’s fine. Nothing escapes the familiar. How many times did Evel Knievel jump his motorbike over used car lots before bursts of cheers and wide-eyed frenzy settled down into dutiful applauses? Hell, people fly through the sky now while interfacing from the palm of their hand across a global digital network, and the typical level of amazement you’re likely to hear is, "Huh, I think that’s Spain down there. Check out this cat video."

It’s fine. Everything’s fine. Spielberg still makes exceptional films, even when he doesn’t make great ones. Or, the other way around, or...whatever. I do want take this opportunity for a little surface meditation on his 2005 remake of War of the Worlds. Fun fact: I prefer it over both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., in part, for the way it inverts them. Obviously, Spielberg's third feature film foray into the premise of aliens is a grim, malevolent tale. Not a look-to-the-skies wonderer but a run-for-your-lives nightmare. And yet, wonder remains in its own darkly way. Numerous scenes from War of the Worlds feel recreated from the yesteryear boy-brain fascinations with "death-ray invasion" imagery via 50s sci-fi magazine covers and movie posters.

Spielberg's giant Tripod walkers reign down not only immediate terror but a grim atmosphere where cold overcast gives into a perpetual night of luminous purple-blue horizons; auras of such strangess that can only hail from the outers of space. When the Ferrier family wash up on the bank of the Hudson River and view from afar as Tripods snatch up swimmers from a capsized ferry, the scene is framed for lobby card effect and scored only by the surreal sound design of some echoing emergency air horn and distant screams in the night. It's a call back to vintage pop-art splash pages that tantalized readers with the possibilities of modernity wrought into something phantasmagoric.

Vertebral to this ominously upended telling is the director's continuation with his broken family unit. Where 70s man-child Roy Neary leaves behind his wife and kids with a free pass of sorts, in the name of 'everyman journey into the unknown', E.T. addresses the consequences with a fatherless Elliot whose closer encounter is not a ticket to freedom-escapism, but a companion to restitute the pains of paternal abandonment. Think of Ray Ferrier then as the fallout embodiment that is Roy's absence (one mere first name vowel to another). More potently, Ray is not only a grown up version of Elliot but one as seen through the looking-glass, a mirroring that I can't help but think Spielberg puts to visual.

Even weirder is that Ray's kids Robbie and Rachel are practically the same age as Michael and Gertie, as if Elliot slipped through some mad movie paradox to emerge as his irresponsible middle-aged self burdened with parenting the same sibling pair but this time in the form of angst cynicism and smarty precociousness.

Everyone comes down hard on the kid performances -- either one is allegedly too loud and needy or the other too petulant, or both -- but, I dunno, they’re just kids. I’m not sure what "special" alternative scripting for prepubescent/adolescent behavior would be as effective in selling the working class, broken family unit verisimilitude. Seems like it’s the teenage and early twenty-something audience that have the biggest problem with this aspect of the film whereas parents and older adults in general tend to better appreciate, empathetically, such depictions, or are at least unphased by it. I was always fine with it, anyways, and I think the two young actors were plenty convincing in their roles.

I also dig the ‘Cruise factor’ in this movie, particularly how the star’s middle aged persona is subverted a bit to reflect a deadbeat dad who hasn’t outgrown fast cars and casual female relationships. It’s quite impressive, really, how Spielberg was able to convey an entire back story through all the various details and performance nuances of a single domestic scene between divorced parents relaying their kids for the weekend: a woman once charmed by leather jackets and bad boy grins who, in the wake of motherhood, ended the marriage for the sake of stable living and material responsibilities (i.e. Tim’s "safe looking SUV") yet still habitually frowns upon her ex’s unkempt apartment and informs him when he’s out of milk; Cruise’s Ferrier quickly closing his bedroom door as she walks by, half-subconsciously hiding from the ever-judgmental his personal "adult space" where occur aforesaid loose relations.

Such a degree of everyman characterization breezily established early on is what anchors the film amidst the oncoming otherworldliness which in turn only contrasts that much more hauntingly with Spielberg’s lurid vision of an alien overlord invasion. War of the Worlds avoided that innocuous, stock Hollywood drama of the 70s and 90s disaster movies along with its big studio backlot look-and-feel in favor of something lost in rural Northeastern locality that was all too dark and dreamy and id. Sure, there’s the apparent tap into the cultural psyche over post-911 fears -- human dust, downed jetliners, a wall covered in photographs of missing loved ones etc. -- but as the narrative proceeds it takes audiences further and further back in time and down the rabbit hole, reimagining through the Martian presence an alchemy of historical conflicts. The thunder and flash from a hilltop horizon military engagement evokes the night hours of war-torn Europe while refugees fleeing from Tripod searchlights and later herded into cages for human processing caps the milieu with its own bent Holocaust.

Still deeper lies an imbedded memory spanning from mid-20th century America back to its first Revolution that echoes throughout the Ferrier family trek from Jersey to Boston, along the Hudson and amidst backroad farmlands and rolling hills. Industrial-driven aliens coldly probe the remnants of an abandoned farmhouse basement, murmuring inhuman speech as they scan black and white pictures and prod old bicycle parts—a kind of weird molestation of the Rockwellian. When later scrambling from the house, Cruise looks out over what should be the saturated pastels of some idyllic ‘American Scene painting’ (think Kinkade, at the very least) of a quaint Connecticut countryside only to instead witness the same impressionistic landscape inverted with dark skies and blood red decay, as if the Tripods, not the British, had ravaged the colonial earth those two hundred and thirty years ago.

"Occupations always fail!" shouts Tim Robbin’s panic-stricken Ogilvy, and indeed it’s a core theme that dominates the film. Observe how Spielberg symbolizes this resistance with ashen blood roots that break away in pieces from the Boston statue of a colonial soldier; an illustrative moment that immediately precedes the victorious rocket launcher ground assault and overall spells doom for the invading enemies.

Oh, and back to Ogilvy, here’s my dopey little theory: he’s not real.

Let’s go over some factors here. There’s already a schism between the father Ray and his son Robbie, the latter of whom is early on tagged with a homework assignment on the French Occupation of Algeria, his first link with a bunkered Ogilvy whose entire purpose is based on the historically informed claim quoted above. Throughout the movie Robbie is not only determined to join up with any Army convoy that comes his way but is even more deeply transfixed by the very sight of a neighborhood laid to waste and equally obsessed with witnessing up close this war against the unimaginable, and giving himself over to the wave of human resistance, scurrying over a hill into the fray like a moth drawn the flame. His alleged demise then leaves a gaping hole in the father’s identity, soon after supplanted in my opinion with an alternate, warring identity harboring the same streak of rebellion only amplified to a fanatical extreme. In short, Ogilvy is a part of Ray, his regret, who stands in for the son. And the two are more at odds than ever before. This war of the worlds is a war of the psyche. The script even throws in a clever meta-moment where Ogilvy hints the situation for what it is: "You and me, I don’t think we’re on the same page."

Yet, the real tell-tale here is Rachel. Notice that she never once responds to Ogilvy. A moment comes when the two are sitting together on the staircase with Ogilvy assuring that, if anything were to happen to her father, he would take his place as her protector; a moment interupted by Ray who then calls Rachel to his side. In this instance Spielberg frames the daughter responding mechanically as a child might to a situation that, on the surface, is perhaps not what the audience is seeing. Later, when the "two men" are grappling in panic over the barrel of a shotgun, a closeup of Rachel reveals an eerily blank expression; again, a child not able to fully process the behaivor on display. When Ray finally confronts Ogilvy in a fight to the death, this alternate perception of the scenario at its breaking point, even if accepted it only for argument's sake, is given a whole new psychotraumatic meaning for both father and daughter as the latter covers her ears and sings a lullaby in dispair to avoid hearing the horrors of her daddy in the other room, alone, losing his shit. The scene ends with the two sitting together (again) on the staircase in silence, embracing eacher other almost anesthitically, out of sheer emotional exhaustion.

Even when dismissing from as much a literal interpretation, the metaphorical emphasis remains all the same, as Ogilvy represents for Ray and Rachel a physical manifestation of the family narrative through-line up that juncture. Spielberg is constantly working on such levels, demonstrating widespread societal breakdown matched with communal heroism and a situational mosaic of familial instincts under extreme, world-ending circumstances. He skillfully employs shot designs and coded imagery (figures framed within holes broken through windows/windshields, for example) while positioning surrounding characters in such a way to mirror and/or motivate Cruise’s Ferrier: Robbie the defiant copy whose "Let me go" secession denotes his father’s own transformation, Ogilvy the figurative, counteractive DID manifestation that Cruise must destroy in order to save Rachel, and Rachel herself as the coveted prize, the one costumed splash of color amidst an entire runtime of washed-out cinematography, whose survival determines her father’s redemption and, metaphorically, the very biological deus ex machina that bookends the film; she says early on of the splinter in her finger, "When it’s ready, my body will just push it out."

Many criticized the 2005 remake for keepsaking Wells' allegedly outdated and oversimplified interpretation of an advanced alien race thwarted by something as elementary as microscopic bacteria (while younger and/or ignorant naysayers never even considered this aspect as the product of faifthul adaptation). I think the conciet remains strong. Even in modern times mankind, armed with scientific understanding of microorginisms, has nonetheless ventured carelessly into jungles to suffer the consequences of deadly viral infections. Suggested here are alternate variables of technological evolution that might not always result in a harmonious being or lead a race down progressive paths. Interesting to note, in my opinion, that the aliens in the film are not so much evil as they are apathetic. Consider the idea of a race who, perhaps at one time, possessed feelings or held to moral standards in some fashion, yet has since over eons evolved so completely into a state of pure mechanization—industrialization.

These aliens proceed not out of malice or even dominion under any pretense of victory or conquest, but simply to maintain the factory incarnate that now defines their entire existence. They're intelligences that serve the machine, the machine that serves the body politic, as networked together across any given planet with red vines (or veins) of livestock blood. The physical, memetic link between the Tripods and their pilots makes no such distinction as is found between Man and his automobiles, aircrafts or construction vehicles; the self-identity of the former as the very engines that rise from our earth bears a degree of absolution that renders them the coldest of despots. Now consider from this premise how such total disregard for all other life might equate a devolution in common sense towards all other life forms. Technology is not synonomous with wisdom.

Is War of the Worlds perfect? Hardly. The one lasting criticism I agree with is the tacked-on return of Robbie. His left-to-be-assumed demise would have afforded the ending a more authentic balance between bitter and sweet. I can imagine the mother at once holding her daughter with relief and looking around desperately for an absent son, while the father is left with no other choice but to walk away and continue on in a state of irresolution. A point docked, no doubt, yet it hardly ruins the whole movie for me. Altogether, it’s a retelling with its own identity and in turn a masterful work of pop-art science fiction cinema.

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