This is a film about the unknown. No one truly knows what is happening to them in War of the World, just that they are being attacked. It makes no sense, we do not know why the aliens are here, and there is no indication as to what they are going to do once they establish the planet as their own.
This is a visual effects masterpiece, a film so convincingly real in its efforts, the invasion seems plausible. The first images of the alien tripod is astounding, rising above the city and standing there. It is a quiet moment, and a sense of uncertainty dominates the air. It begins to light up, and people on the street still look on with curious eyes.
The sense of panic that follows, people disintegrating as the alien war machine begins its assault, is pure chaos. The focus stays on Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) as he tries to escape the insanity, barely missing cars tossed through windows and entire houses completely obliterated behind him. This continues as he tries to move his two children, soon to be in the path of this extermination. A master shot is brilliant, a panicked Rachel Ferrier (Dakota Fanning) distraught and hyperventilating as the camera swerves not only around a van driving on the freeway, but through it. The sense of displacement and narrowing mental status of Ray is conveyed simply by a camera move.
War of the Worlds is one of a meager five American mass alien invasion films, and the only one willing to show the after-effects. Whereas other films have no problem showing buildings exploding and the occasional victim zapped, this update goes one step further. Rachel stands near an unspecified river, and dead bodies begin floating downstream. Sold by the performance as her young mind tries to grasp the situation, the image is haunting, even more so than the alien death rays turning people to dust in a split second.
Spielberg handles every scene with fear and eerie grace, even when the massive machines are not in full assault mode. Underground with an insane survivalist Harlan Oglivy (Tim Robbins), the Ferrier’s are chased by an eye, seeking out humans. The fear, pure, unfiltered terror even of being seen is unrelenting as they move about the basement, just out of view from the alien probe. Another layer is added as Oglivy decides to fight, and Ray must struggle quietly despite a life or death scenario being placed in his hands.
In many ways, War of the Worlds goes against the standards and precedence set before it. The military might, typically an action highlight of these films, is completely avoided on screen. Guns are fired and missiles are shot, yet the focus remains on Ray as he tries to convince his son not to join the fight. This solitary focus works, particularly when the remnants of the military strike are seen coming over the hill engulfed in flames.
It is a shame then that this script, or maybe even Spielberg’s own doing, leave a ridiculous, sour taste in the audience’s mouth. No, not the means of the alien’s defeat, but the Hollywood flourish that is so out of place in a film like this, it is nothing short of terrible. It makes no sense, fails to leave the characters on a dramatic emotional note, and even ruins a respectful cameo from Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the 1953 original. Such a waste.
Paramount’s AVC encode for War of the Worlds is a good one, mainly because of how well it resolves the extensive grain and noise utilized throughout. The intent is there and maintained without any tinkering. There are moments where this can become a burden, but these are usually single shots, quickly resolved or littered with visual effects. The noise and compression in the smoke at 24:57 hinders a fantastic shot of the alien ship first rising into the sky. Against the brightly colored skyline at 1:35:59, the encode again shows through, or maybe that is a result of the effects.
Detail is generally at a premium, hidden behind the intentional noise and grit. In terms of texture, the best moments take place in Oglivey’s basement, where the focused lighting allows superb facial detail to shine. A close-up of Dakota Fanning at 1:26:10 is wonderful, as are the continued shots of the adult characters, especially while they struggle with the shotgun. Color is barely a factor, the brightest saturation showcased on Fanning’s sweater, comprised of a multitude of pastels.
Contrast runs hot, regularly blooming and blowing out all highlights. Many will be bothered as the kids are first brought to Ray’s home, his ex-wife and her new husband completely overtaken by the light. This is all quite intentional, and never does it impede on the spectacular, rich black levels that remain consistently firm.
There are some sporadic moments of concern, especially as the military investigates the downed tripod at the end, 1:45:32 or so. The grain suddenly looks like it was pulled from a DVD, and softness dominates. This happens prior underground at 1:17:54, where the artifacts suddenly take over and completely blot detail from the frame. It looks like the resolution takes a dip too, creating a softness that is distracting.
War of the Worlds is dangerous on Blu-ray, especially to those who own equipment that may not be able to withstand the intensity of the bass. This is beyond mere room-shaking material, moving into “room destroying” territory. If the lightning assault signaling the arrival of the aliens has you worried, once the death rays start firing, you’ll be in a panic. This is the type of bass, clear and crisp mind you, that obliterates everything that comes before it on this format.
This is easily one of the best sound mixes ever produced by Hollywood, so intense and aggressive, without it the film loses something. This is the type of audio you need to feel, and this mix allows that. A previous DVD benchmark (in DTS), this uncompressed DTS-HD effort slaughters the previous incarnation in every regard. Any of the action scenes will suffice, but the first will undoubtedly be the showcase for many. The build-up, filled with tremors that split buildings in half, is a mere tease. The clarity of the destruction is remarkable, highlighted by the poor woman who tries to start her car (which is hit hard by the rays) and the shattering glass as Cruise runs through the storefront.
The ferry assault is another classic moment, again set-up by incoming danger as the alien horns make their call coming over a hill. As the ferry is tipped over, water begins rushing into the soundfield, hitting the viewer in all directions with staggering aggressiveness. Minor moments in the film (at least in the scheme of things) include a plane dropping onto a house, and the thuds of the ship’s legs dropping on the ground while in Oglivey’s basement. The explosion of the military assault is awesome in scale, with the audio assist to match. At 49:49, Cruise’s dialogue carries a notably static quality, the only time this occurs, and the only issue of note.
This immense effort ends on a high note thankfully, the military finally besting the invaders with a brutal rocket launcher assault, filled with intense explosions and scattering debris as the machine crashes through a building. More importantly, everything is brilliantly mixed, including a fantastic military theme that blares with staggering forcefulness. It will be some time before something can dominate the home audio experience like this disc, a true audiophile’s disc if there ever was one.
Paramount does it right, transferring all of the content from the two-disc DVD release over to this Blu-ray. Seven featurettes comprise a bulk of the bonus features, totaling around an hour or so of content. Spielberg discusses his alien invasion influence (and previous work in the genre) in Revisiting the Invasion, while the ’53 film gets its due in Steven Spielberg and the original War of the Worlds. Focuses on the design of the ships, pre-visualization, the characters, H.G. Wells, and the score are included as well.
Four production diaries are included offering solid insight into the film’s creation. Galleries and trailers remain.