Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sean Collins on War of the Worlds

Sean Collins has just posted an interesting and perceptive defense of War of the Worlds. He gets at the way the Tim Robbins/basement sequence works just about perfectly. I also thought it alternated between brilliant moments and, well, uninspired moments. The off-screen killing, I thought, was an especially amazing idea: in retrospect, it is the only possible way to film the confrontation without giving the audience the standard visceral rush that comes from watching any actual hand-to-hand combat.

But I think the post does Spielberg an injustice when Sean suggests that Spielberg means the ending of War of the Worlds to be anything but a genuine "at least it all worked out for us"-style happy ending. Spielberg really means it, as much as he means the tacked-on-feeling dopey-creepy-Freudian ending of A.I. The thing about the War ending (noted by The Derelict in the comments section of my first post on the movie) is that it takes a complicated moment--Cruise is happy to have survived, happy to see his ex-wife, but guilty/grieving for having failed to protect his son--and turns it into a simple moment: "Oh wait, and his son is okay too, so that horrible choice he made back on the hill really didn't matter."

It's a cheat, and I think it's a mistake because (a) most of the audience I saw the movie with either laughed or made some kind of "Oh, come on!" comment and (b) even the people I know who liked the movie thought that it undermined all the serious stuff that had already happened. (A friend asked, "How'd he get to Boston? On the Chinatown bus?")

Also, I don't think Spielberg panders to "Hollywood values": I think he uses standard Hollywood endings in order to pander to his audience, and I think he does this because he's actually said he does this. He's talked frankly about how he will put scenes in his movies in order to give the audience "what they need". I don't think this is a horrible thing to do--it's better than being a kind of misanthrope like Lars von Trier and putting unpleasant scenes in a movie because he thinks that's "what the audience needs to see"--but I do think that it sometimes undermines a lot of what he's already done. Fair or not, the ending is what most people take out of the movie with them and a bad, hokey ending is a lot less forgiveable than a bad, hokey beginning.

For example, I like Saving Private Ryan a lot (much better than Thin Red Line), but I walked out of the theater thinking, "Well, it's a good thing those guys saved Private Ryan, because otherwise he wouldn't have been able to spawn such a photgenic, blond family." To be fair, part of the point of the ending seems to be that because Tom Hanks and crew sacrificed their lives for Private Ryan, he decided he had to live an exemplary life in order to be worthy of their sacrifice, but I still couldn't help thinking, "Well, what if Ryan had gone back to the States and lived a really horrible life? Would that have made him not worth saving?" Again, these kind of questions might be a little bit unfair, but it's only because of Spielberg's tacked-on-feeling ending that they even come up. The movie raises complex issues but the ending's resolution of them is simplistic and unsatisfactory. Do I think this is a fatal flaw? No, but, for Spielberg, it is a recurring flaw that annoys me more and more over time, because it suggests to me that he doesn't trust that his audience could accept a complex, ambiguous ending. And he might just be 100% right, but it would be nice to see him risk it at least once. After all, it's not like he's in any danger of not being able to get a movie made.


BizBot3000 said...

As the friend who made the Chinatown bus comment, I feel the need to express how much a disliked the movie.

Maybe I'll post shortly on my own blog about why...and why I hated pretty much everything else I've seen this summer.

Bizbot 3000

Dick said...

I feel the need to say you're a tool. Way to piss on the campfire, bizbot.

rashomon said...

I always leave a Spielberg movie feeling that a few minutes (or in the case of AI, about an hour) of edits -- all cuts -- would leave the movie far stronger. The ending of Private Ryan cheapened and spoiled all that came before it. Even my wife, who tends to like feel-good endings, hated the son's overly convenient appearance in War of the Worlds. And AI should have ended when the robot/boy initially plunged into the ocean. I guess in each cae I want to see the movie Polanski would have edited from Spielberg's final cut.