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Wednesday, July 6, 2005
Battle of the titans
'War' movies of summer go head to head
A long time ago, in a decade far, far away, two young directors were redefining the science-fiction film: George Lucas with "Star Wars," and Steven Spielberg with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Both men had been impressed by Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and were determined to wed that film's visual innovations to more populist tales. Lucas sought to create a revved-up, asexual version of the old 1930s serials like "Buck Rogers," while Spielberg planned to capitalize on the United States' then-current fascination with UFOs and government conspiracy theories. (How times don't change.)
One cannot overestimate the impact of these films. Along with the Lucas/Spielberg coproduction "Raiders of the Lost Ark," they created the mold for the sort of effects-driven "event flicks" that dominate Hollywood today and kicked off an arms race in SFX technology that reshaped the landscape of cinema.
What started 28 years ago in the summer of 1977 continues this month, as Lucas and Spielberg go head-to-head with their summer releases. Lucas' "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" is the culmination (I'm hesitant to say "crowning achievement") of the project he has nurtured over his entire career. Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" is but one more in a recent line of striking sci-fi works from the director -- "A.I." and "Minority Report" -- but it also marks a return to his best works of pure terror and suspense, like "Jaws" or "Jurassic Park."
"Revenge of the Sith" closes the "Star Wars" saga by looping back to the start of the original film. The story here explains the birth of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi's presence on the desert planet Tattooine, and the transformation of Luke's father Annekin from noble Jedi knight to evil Sith lord Darth Vader. All the loose ends are more or less wrapped up, but those of you who haven't been reading the comic books or watching the TV cartoon series may find yourself more lost than ever.
Take the opening of the film, an explosive sequence in which Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) and Annekin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) fly their way through a roiling, chaotic space battle to board the command ship of the cyborg general Grievous and rescue Federation councilor Palpatine (Ian MacDiarmid) from the clutches of the Sith lord Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). It's a lot of fun to watch, but as for who's fighting who and why, it's hard to say, even if you managed to figure out the equally convoluted "Episode II: Attack of the Clones."
The crux of the matter rests on Annekin's moral choices: He has recurring nightmares of his pregnant lover Padme (Nathalie Portman), queen of Naboo, dying during childbirth. To protect her, he is capable of anything -- even crossing over to the Dark Side, tempted by the powers on offer by Palpatine, a.k.a Darth Sidious, a Sith lord.
The problems here come every time Christensen opens his mouth. He's offered no favors by Lucas' leaden dialogue: "Together we can rule the galaxy!" is his typical sweet-talk with Padme. During the original "Star Wars" shoot, Harrison Ford famously complained, "George, you can type this sh*t, but you sure can't say it." Obviously, Christensen has learned to type with his mouth and not one moment comes off as felt. As a result, the heart of this movie just ain't beating. As usual, it's the puppet, Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), and the bleeping robot, R2D2, who come off as the most expressive.
Lucas remains a genius at creating these vast, fantastic worlds (highlights include a duel inside an active volcano, and a pursuit in the cavernous Senate chamber), but in his fourth decade as a director, he still doesn't know how to make us care. Typical is a sequence in which Jedi are assassinated. The way it cuts between the separate killings and the formal proceedings as Palpatine takes control of the Republic is meant to recall "Godfather II," the masterpiece of Lucas' former mentor, Francis Ford Coppola. But unlike Coppola, who drew both irony and Shakespearean pathos out of such sequences, Lucas comes up short.
His 1971 directorial debut, "THX1137," was a cold and emotionless film, but that was the point. In Peter Biskind's book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Lucas is quoted as saying at the time, "Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded: get a little kitten, and have some guy wring its neck." Maybe Lucas should have tried that here, for the epic loss of Annekin's soul as he is transformed into the disfigured Darth Vader fails to move. As Lucas' ex-wife and editor, Marcia Lucas, has said of the director, "All he wanted to do was abstract filmmaking . . . collections of images." Perhaps that is how his career has turned out after all; I've often thought the new "Star Wars" series would play better with the sound off.
Spielberg, like Lucas, has always been a master of imagery, of letting the shot, first and foremost, tell the story. But unlike Lucas, Spielberg has always sought to communicate on an emotional level, to make the audience feel something . . . and he's never had to wring a kitten's neck to accomplish that.
With "War of the Worlds," Spielberg wants to scare the daylights out of us, and does it more effectively than you might have thought possible. H.G. Wells' 1898 novel of alien invasion has been done before: Orson Welles' newsflash-like radio broadcast in 1938 transfixed the nation, and a post-Hiroshima cinematization of the book was released in 1953. But the idea was perhaps ruined forever in 1996, if not by Roland Emmerich's seriously silly "Independence Day," then certainly by Tim Burton's ultimate piss-take on the genre, "Mars Attacks."
Moreover, the ever-increasing roster of planetary destruction as a theme for movies -- from "The Day After" to "The Core" -- has left audiences more jaded to the specter of the unimaginable.
Leave it to Spielberg to make his competition eat some dust. From the moment the strange electrical storms burst out of the sky to the point where concrete ripples and buildings shudder as something starts to emerge from underground, through the mass hysteria as people race from the towering, alien harvester that calmly vaporizes them, you will be rapt with breathless terror.
Spielberg directs this one with the skill of a true pro: After the foreplay of impending doom, there's a gasping plunge into panic, followed by a continuous orgasm of shock after shock.
As usual, Spielberg puts a family at the story's center, and it's based around a father who's not there for his kids (a character that echoes the director's own dad, as well as similar characters in "Close Encounters," "Jurassic Park" and "E.T."). Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a loutish divorced dad who's taking care of his kids, Robbie (Ashton Kutcher) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), for the weekend. It's clear they don't care much for him, and along comes the end of the world to really strain the family ties.
The script, by hack-meister David Koepp ("Mission Impossible," "Snake Eyes"), makes a bit too much of the father-son conflict, and tacks on an unbelievable ending, but for the most part it doesn't matter. Cruise's role here is pretty much to play an every-guy trying to survive with his loved ones; his job is to make us feel his desperation and vulnerability, which he does well. Dakota Fanning, meanwhile, goes bug-eyed and screechy on cue.
Spielberg handles the set pieces exceptionally well; the aliens' appearance in a New York City borough doesn't disappoint (unlike M. Night Shyamalan's underwhelming visitors in "Signs"). However, Spielberg's 2001 influence here is not Kubrick, but 9/11: The mass flight of the populace down the streets as devastation nips at their heels, or an airplane dropping out of the sky, are eerily familiar. Like the earlier incarnations of "War of the Worlds," Spielberg is deliberately mixing in real fears, which makes this already disturbing film cross the line into terrifying.
Coming from the maker of "Close Encounters" and "E.T.," a film featuring aliens who want to turn us into slurry is a bit of a shock. But unlike Lucas, who's essentially made the same film six times over three decades, Spielberg is a director who constantly checks the pulse of the zeitgeist. If Roy Neary, the hero of "Close Encounters," possessed a self-absorption and escapism that mirrored the "me generation" of the late 1970s, and "E.T." reflected the warm and fuzzy contentment of the early Reagan years, then "War of the Worlds" is surely a product of our security-obsessed times.
Both directors are tackling dualism, the yin-yang certainty of the universe. Lucas, with his Annekin Skywalker/Darth Vader dichotomy, suggests a Manichaean view of the cosmos: You have to be one or the other, good or evil. It would appear that Spielberg agrees with this when he finally shows us one of the killer aliens, its long slender fingers curiously fondling a bicycle wheel in a direct reference to the lovable E.T. But in Cruise's character he's showing us how it really is, how someone can be both a good person and terribly flawed, and that's the sort of adult realization that has yet to be glimpsed in a Lucas film.