Watched Spielberg’s War of the Worlds last night. Such a disappointment, mainly because it was shockingly ordinary. Even Spielberg’s biggest critics don’t expect that from him. When the great directors fail, they usually fail spectacularly. Even their lesser works provide glimpses of genius, of what could have been - you can sense that somewhere in the rubble there was a topnotch film waiting to be made. (I think of Scorsese’s New York, New York, of DePalma’s Snake Eyes, of Spielberg’s own Artificial Intelligence - thelast an underappreciated film anyway.)
But War of the Worlds is full of moments, in its "key scenes", that could have been directed by just about anyone given a mega-budget. I was particularly depressed by a sequence where the protagonists try to escape the prying electronic eyes of a snake-shaped alien scanner that has been sent into the basement where they’re hiding. This was hide-and-seek suspense of the cheapest, laziest variety and I had to keep reminding myself that it was done by the same man who gave us Jaws (and about whom Hitchcock, no less, once said, "The kid who made the fish film? - he’ll go very far.")
This isn’t a review - I want to get the movie out of my head as fast as possible - but I do want to rant about this creature named Dakota Fanning. She’s an 11-year-old actress who plays Tom Cruise’s little daughter and, well, she’s insufferable. I’d heard the name before but hadn’t seen any of her previous films; Shougat (sitting next to me and furiously scribbling notes by the light of his cellphone) tells me she’s one of Hollywood’s biggest child stars and an unbearably precocious brat. Well, that shows all right in this film, where she chews up the scenery in practically every frame. She acts around 30 years older than her age (no, make that 90 years older, because then at least she’d have senility as an excuse), gazes at the camera with intense, pellucid eyes and talks in a faux-adultlike tone. Everything about her is so horribly fake - the bored "I’m above all this" look, the preening, the posturing, the fox-tail fur she inexplicably has draped around her shoulders.
Worst of all, the camera seems obsessed with her; if you were an alien watching this film you’d never imagine that Tom Cruise was the bigger star. Some of this might have made a little sense if, say, in the final analysis, she was going to play a key role in the film - like the little girl in Shyamalan’s Signs. But no - little Ms Fanning is just your regular child star in danger, the problem being that she doesn’t seem to realise she’s a child. I was waiting for her to do something a normal 11-year-old girl might want to do: maybe spew green vomit at the camera and rasp, "I am Beezlebub", like this little lady here:
I have a big problem with forced precocity in children and with the fact that child celebrities are made to grow up too fast. (Remember those kids on Zee and Sony’s "talent shows" being forced to perform like monkeys while their mercenary parents/guardians look on fiercely from the sidelines? That’s matter for another post though.)
Back to the inappropriately acronymed WoW: Ms Fanning screams a lot too, and it’s far more grating than any of the sounds made by the alien tripods. Throw in that ham Tim Robbins playing yet another of his patented idiot savants and you have - a historic first, people - a movie where Tom Cruise actually seems understated and dignified. If that’s reason enough for you to see it, go.