by Ricky Young
If MostlyFilm was a giant robot, and the 1983 BBC2 Sci-Fi season was an unsuspecting Californian coastal town, then the former’s recent march through the latter may have left some wreckage behind.
‘Curse you, M05tlyF1lm!’ the surviving townspeople would shout at the departing metal colossus, fists aloft. ‘These were good ideas you’ve just trashed! Some of them were great ideas! Yes, not every production was a gem, granted, but how will we nourish our imaginations now?’
M05tlyF1lm would stop in his tracks, swivel his giant robot bonce around 180°, and bark out an order in a distressing grate:
‘But there are surprisingly few straight remakes of the fifteen films on the list, M05tlyF1lm! Alright, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been remade three times, and some argue that Innerspace could be regarded a technical remake of Fantastic Voyage, but we tried sitting through that recently and there’s no way it’s going on the list. It’s actually nothing like the original’
###-ALSO, SCHTICK OF MARTIN SHORT TOO TOXIC TO TOLERATE ON BIG SCREEN-###
‘Phew, ain’t that the truth. So, that’s the only way to rebuild our town, is it? By taking a discursive and flippant look at how three of our cherished sci-fi landmarks were later treated by other film-makers? Because, I have to say, this metaphor’s stretched enough as it is.’
###-IT IS EITHER YOU OR IAIN LEE-###
‘Really? Christ, better get on with it then.’
Given what him and his sort believe in, you’d have thought Tom Cruise would stay the hell away from anything to do with aliens or alien invasions. But no, here he is, bold as brass, in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version of War Of The Worlds. In Part 4, we reported liking some of the 1953 original, but ending up frustrated with the themes and the fudged ending – Spielberg does a decent job of replicating that experience pretty much entirely.
Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a normal workin’ schlub, or as near to a normal workin’ schlub as Tom Cruise could ever get. His ex-wife has dropped off the kids for the weekend, and just as we’re getting some pretty enjoyable hints that Ray is something of a feckless bell-end, dark clouds form across the New Jersey sky and repeatedly barrage the ground with lightning. From that contact point, a massive metal tripod emerges and starts firing its heat rays hither and thither, not giving a damn what it hits (an entire church stands in for the ’53 version’s famous Sacrificial Clergyman), and so little Tom decides to gather up the family and leg it.
And what a family it is. The daughter’s an eight-year-old squealer with a hair-trigger, and the teenage son’s a sullen idiot whose very favourite thing in the world is constantly asking his dad questions to which Tom couldn’t possibly know the answer. “What was that, Dad? What does it want? What was that, Dad?” That sort of thing, endlessly, each question interspersed with UHF yelps from the moppet on the back seat. At this point, Tom gets plenty of good-father brownie points for not turning around and heading back towards the peace-and-quiet-giving heat-rays.
This is Spielberg at his most workmanlike, and while there’s no denying the strength of his images (a burning train racing though a crossroads, the wreckage of a downed airliner atop his ex-wife’s house, the tripods combing the landscape with their tentacles flailing away at the puny humans etc), the decision to focus on the edges of the invasion leads us to want to ask a few questions of our own about just what the hell’s going on. For a film that doesn’t want to commit to anything, that’s not wise.
Yes, I KNOW the lack of information about events is meant to mirror the numbness and insecurity of the individual in a state under attack by unknown enemies (by the way, thanks for all the subsequent bad art, 9-11 terrorists!) but if the film is going to double-down on the previous texts’ cop-out ending, then a more focused threat would have helped sell it.
The 00’s were mixed for Spielberg – WOTW follows 2004’s phoned-in Catherine Zeta Jones Bangs An Airport Tramp and was made while prepping the controversy-courting Incredibly Angry Jews. It could be that his attention was elsewhere, getting ready to fight a legion of flaky-balled academics, but from about thirty minutes in, War Of The Worlds is just filled with loose ends.
The aliens (if they are aliens, there’s no mention of ‘Martians’, or anything else overtly extraterrestrial) are heralded by dark skies, but the tripods come out of the ground after lighting-strikes from the clouds. A mid-film info-dump gives the deliberate impression that the alien were transported down to the tripods via the lightning, and that the war-machines had been hidden under the ground for an unspecified length of time, awaiting the return of their pilots. This break from the original could potentially indicate a cute Quatermass-y spin on things, but it’s never taken any further. It does, however, throw up a few questions of its own. Ready? Good.
1) Why hadn’t anyone detected this massed metal army beneath the Earth’s surface before now? 2) If the invaders are fatally susceptible to naturally-occurring bacteria, why didn’t they fall prey to it when they were here burying all their kit? 2a) Did nobody feel a bit peaky on the way home? 3) And if they were here because they liked our planet, why didn’t they just take over then? 3b) Why did they wait until humans had invented all sorts of zippy weaponry that could get in the way of a smooth transition? 3c) Oh, because they’ve been watching us, and they know our weapons aren’t good enough yet? They sure as shit weren’t paying attention to the adverts for fucking ASKIT POWDERS then either. 4) But, later in the film, if they appear to need humans to chomp up and spray on their strange and completely unexplained red organic matter they seem to be planting everywhere, then why do they spend so long blasting swathes of us with heat rays? 4a) And if chomp/spray is the mission, why are there tripods patrolling rivers, just biding their time to jump up and knock over ferries – what sort of resource-usage is this? 5) Oh, and surely there’s a better way of harvesting humans than picking them up one by one and sucking them into the tripods’ raw, engorged sphincter? 6) Why is the sight of Tom Cruise plunging his way in and out a quivering scarlet arsehole so titter-worthy?
Sorry about all that, but as the film keeps its head above water until the big humans-attack-the-tripods scene about half-way through, and then races to the end on a wave of ‘For Some Reason’, I don’t see any reason to cut it much slack. Mid-way through, the son rushes off into the heat of battle, possessed by some mad keenness to get involved, which makes absolutely no sense, and Tom just lets him, which makes even less. (I just think the film stock found him as annoying as me, and wasn’t prepared to pony up any more celluloid on the gangly fucker.)
Tom’s focus then shifts laser-like to the protection of his daughter above all else, because in a crisis that’s what fathers do etc , but in keeping with the 1953 version, the world’s so gone to shit that by that point it’s hard to care. He does get the family back together at the end (once all the aliens keel over) complete with a pretty audacious bit of Spielbergian pandering where the missing son just walks onto the set and hugs his dad. The film then stops, once again being careful to thank God for making sure the myriad constituent parts of his celestial dominion are forever segregated via different types of slow-acting sneeze.
So, where are we? High-concepty, top-notch production design, a storming first half-hour then a descent into NO NOT THE CHILDREN! as the focus and coherency slips away? Why, looks like we got ourselves a theme.
Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, in a 2008 remake of 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still? In the role that Michael Rennie invested with dignity, compassion and otherness? Shut up! Give the man a chance!
For a while, this was shaping up to be pretty great. Like the original, it got down to business with a brisk and no-nonsense manner; an alien visitor is here, to speak with the UN, but the Yanks aren’t having it. The alien then escapes and goes walkabout, aided by a widow and her son, and learns a bit about humanity. Keanu balances enigmatic and charismatic surprisingly well (at first) and the efficient alien-arrival set-up (the usual mix of news-voiceovers, military barking and huddled masses around tellies) is paced nicely.
The difference here is that while Michael Rennie’s Klaatu was here to soak up the scenery then warn us all about Tangling With The Atom, Keanu’s here to hand out some environmental smackdown. The 50’s wagging finger and the ‘we’re watching you, m’kay?’ sent shivers up the spine – the 00’s being-wiped-out-for-abusing-Mother-Nature sent me looking for my dvd of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where a gigantic pissed-off space-dildo did everything Keanu does here, only sprightlier.
The widow is now a brittle and tightly-wound scientist, played by brittle and tightly-wound Jennifer Connelly. She’s extra-brittle around step-son Jaden Smith, and it’s fair to say that any intention of keeping a sympathetic audience got stamped on the second this preening little dipshit was cast.
In the original, the son’s untapped potential and bright, optimistic outlook helps convince Klaatu that Earth is worth saving. Here, the antagonism between mother and dipshit over the fallout from his father’s death quite rightly paints us all as astonishingly petulant whiners who deserve to be booted off the planet in favour of all the flowers. I can see what they were trying to do (right, says Keanu, ‘if you’re all like this unpleasant midget, you’re fucked’, and kicks off the extermination, until he later changes his mind), but Smith sells his unresolved father issues with all the conviction of a pod-grown showbiz mini-me, upset over a wrong-coloured limo.
But no, we’re meant to love him. Because he’s a child, you see, and we believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way etc. (Thanks, Whitney – peace out.) We all do, even in times of ultimate, planet-threatening external crisis. You believe it, I believe it, it’s no lie to say that this film believes it because just when the world’s teetering on the brink, the focus completely switches, much like in War Of The Worlds, to the parent/child dynamic above all else.
Picture in your mind Jennifer Connelly grasping Jaden Smith to her, screaming ‘NOT MY SON, PLEASE!’ at the surrounding threats, while the whir and wind from helicopter blades drown her out and harsh military lighting stabs the scene. That’s the last hour of this film, in essence.
Now there’s nothing wrong with telling this story, of course. Kids are great – I once was one, I’ve been told – and concentrating on saving them is an easy way to connect with jaded modern audiences, but what was the point of taking things that already had a pretty decent story, and giving it this other, quite boring, extremely familiar one instead? It’s almost as if the people who decided to remake these films had no reason to do so, and had absolutely nothing to say. That couldn’t be true, could it?
Let’s finish on the recent-ish remake of If My Calculations Are Correct’s favourite, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. As noted, it got a movie-brat paranoia version in the 70s, and a body-horror tinged go in the 90s. But did you know there was a 2007 version starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, called The Invasion? No, me neither. Let’s check it out – here’s hoping it doesn’t start strongly with a vivid visual palette, a keen yet subtle sense of the story’s history and a set of fine and unshowy performances – and then about half-an-hour in, thanks to a) not knowing how to ramp up the tension without everyone SHOUTING ALL THE TIME and b) behind-the-scenes rewrites and a fired director meaning this limped embarrassingly into theatres months later than planned, what we’re left with doesn’t jettison most of what made the original work then just end up being a decibel-drenched farrago involving – yet again – the core components of an established classic sci-fi concept being sidelined to make way for a by-the-numbers yawn-fest about a threatened single-parent and the strained relationship between them and their oh-so-precious issue! What do you say, Nicole?
Suits me, toots.