War of the Worlds
dir. Steven Spielberg
Opens Wed June 29.
Though I usually take his side, if only for sport, the first hour of War of the Worlds had me convinced that Steven Spielberg had finally proven his detractors right. Before the bad things start happening, the stage is set for the kind of soulless, CGI-driven family redemption saga that could only happen in a grillion-dollar movie.
Tom Cruise, cast against type as a human being with problems he seems to actually be aware of, is a divorced blue-collar Joe who has to take care of his kids while their mom goes off with her rich new husband for the weekend. The moody teenage son hates him, breaks his window with a baseball, and steals his hot rod; the adorable pre-teen daughter, meanwhile, merely disapproves of his slovenly lifestyle. Luckily for all of them, the world soon turns to cataclysm when aliens that have been planning for centuries to kill all humans, and claim Earth as their own, rise up (literally) and begin to do just that, effortlessly slaughtering everyone in their path, shattering bridges and buildings, and generally fucking everything up.
Of course what one anticipates is a scenario in which the father's heroism gains him the trust of his diffident kids, the grudging respect of his contemptuous ex-wife, and most importantly of all, a thick slice of dignity for the man himself. All signs point to cliché: The action is predicated on human behavior that no human would recognize (you'd think the first explosion would get people running, but no, they just hang around and gawk), and the familial tension is exaggerated in contrived ways—even Dakota Fanning, the Cute-asaurus Rex of all time, comes off shrill and horrible. I found myself feeling like the premise of alien spaceships attacking the planet was too retro to resonate, even as fantasy, like this was a permanently antiquated story with a great face for radio. The effects—a bridge roiling into smithereens, a freight train in flames hurtling down a track, every shot of the alien tripods—are admittedly astonishing, the best you've ever seen. It's just hard to appreciate them with all the boring humans in the frame.
But then something happens. The supreme achievement of the effects seems to galvanize Spielberg into earning them. The drama enters some very dark territory, always motorized by the unimaginable terror of the invincible invaders—it's like the material is daring the director to show us what he's got. Not just 100-story-tall aliens in the Hudson River, upsetting the ferry and throwing you into the freezing water, but then cars full of screaming people falling after, plunging you deeper, and when you finally come up for air, your head is one inch from the upturned rotor... and onward. By the time War of the Worlds finds its groove, the mere act of survival is the only redemption the characters could possibly hope for. And that's when it becomes clear that source material was never the problem; H. G. Wells's story was for the ages. Even Hollywood couldn't successfully cheapen it, try though it did. SEAN NELSON
dir. Andy Byatt and Alastair Fothergill
Opens Fri July 1.
Ever since Walt Disney first synched up scorpions to square-dancing music, nature documentaries have provided a dependable fix for both filmmakers and audiences looking to balance cutesy with the occasional feeding frenzy. Deep Blue, a greatest-hits compilation of footage culled from the long-running BBC series The Blue Planet, boasts a startling number of genuinely epic marine encounters, skewing toward the savage. Ultimately, though, despite the often-stunning footage and appropriately epic narration from Pierce Brosnan, it lacks the connecting thesis statement that separates an above-par nature documentary (Microcosmos, Winged Migration) from just a really cool episode of Animal Planet. A shame, really, since many of the critters caught here on film (including some ludicrously huge shoals of feeder fish, a veritable dolphin fleet, and a few trench-dwelling beasties freaky enough to make Cthulhu turn tail) really are something to see on the big screen. Still, thematic quibbling aside, there's likely more than enough neat things here to generally satisfy nature junkies just jonesing to see fish... doing stuff. Warning: Younger viewers may be upset by the relatively high footage ratio of carnivores going about their business, especially concerning the repeated bloodthirsty depictions of killer whales as complete and utter bastards. Free Willy, this ain't. ANDREW WRIGHT
March of the Penguins
dir. Luc Jacquet
Opens Fri July 1.
I have never liked penguins, and now that I've watched the documentary March of the Penguins I like them even less. To begin with, the creatures have ugly feet, and their awkward walk makes them look like sitting ducks. I'm surprised the penguin is not, like the dodo, extinct. Their reproductive process, which is the focus of this documentary, is abnormally long and harsh. Pleasure will not be found in the sex life of a penguin; the dumb bird spends the better part of a frozen year producing, caring for, and raising its young. In the middle of winter—when the black temperatures have no memory of zero degree, of warmth, of the sun itself—the penguin does everything it can to protect the little life in the egg tucked between its feet and bottom. And what is the purpose of this struggle to survive? To make yet another dumb penguin.
March of the Penguins has one great moment—when it shows a group of female penguins going into the sea and swimming through the water in the way their featured relatives fly through the air. The water is clear blue, the surrounding ice forms a majestic architecture, and the penguins zip here and there, chasing fish and avoiding sea lions. But when they're back on the land, back on their ugly feet, all of the grace is gone and once again the penguin is a dull and clumsy creature. The only animal worth making a documentary about is the human. CHARLES MUDEDE