Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s take on the classic War of the Worlds tale has always been a favorite of mine. This is a refreshing adaptation, taking the core of the story and framing it through a broken family dynamic with top of the line production and visual effects, and delivers a number of superbly crafted ‘set pieces’ that showcase all of the very best this film has to offer. Paramount’s release of three Tom Cruise films, Top Gun, Days of Thunder and War of the Worlds, have all looked spectacular in 4K, but War of the Worlds comes out on top with perfect audio and video. This is a brilliant release.
The Production: 4/5
“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, *they* observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”
Author H.G. Wells imagined an unprepared England in the closing years of the nineteenth century overwhelmed by malevolent Martian invaders laying waste to London, and surrounding areas, with enormous mechanized tripods. Wells’ War of the Worlds became an instant success, but gained a certain notoriety following the 1938 version adapted by the great Orson Welles, which transferred the events from England to the American state of New Jersey, and was presented with a fervor of realism. The radio play’s realism – born of a ‘breaking news’ format – led to millions of panicked listeners. Orson Welles soon apologized for stirring such panic with his production, which he produced and directed. He seemed contrite and perhaps a little surprised by the effects of his dramatic radio production, but War of the Worlds had found a new medium in which to startle and impress.
The first-person narrative of Author Wells’ tale – almost journalistic – was expertly expanded upon for the 1938 radio production (broadcast on the eve of Halloween). Then, in 1953, Paramount Pictures released the first cinematic adaptation, and the results were remarkable. Again, setting the events in America, and based on variations of the 1938 radio version, War of the Worlds was a marvel of superb production, superb special effects, and superb sound effects (which even today conjure notions of doom and destruction). Despite a short-lived television series, which served as a sequel more than a retelling, and two horrendous SyFy Channel television movies (and a 50th anniversary radio production), the only other notable adaptation prior to the Spielberg’s ambitious 2005 work is the 1978 musical by Jeff Wayne, which featured Richard Burton’s narration, and a pop-disco fueled soundtrack that is as fantastic a listen today as it has ever been. And so, the notion of Steven Spielberg tackling the seminal H.G. Wells story was riddled with both possibility and trepidation. However, despite some loose creative freedoms, the Tom Cruise-led remake is a success.
In an industrial suburban section of New Jersey, divorced father of two, Ray Ferrier nonchalantly takes steward of his children from his ex-wife for the weekend. His teenage son clearly would rather be anywhere but there, and his precocious daughter, seemingly at ease with needing to self-parent given her father’s inescapable selfish immaturity, is entirely too grown up for her age. Ray lives a modest, unkempt life, and his visiting children seem more a nuisance to him than a welcome visit. When an afternoon storm rouses the neighborhood with foreboding dark clouds and fierce lightning concentrated in one spot, the dysfunctional familial life of the Ferrier’s (and the rest of the world) is on the cusp of incredible upheaval.
Investigating the location where the lighting struck, an intersection several blocks from his house, Ray and the small working-class New Jersey neighborhood is soon witness to the cataclysmic unearthing of a mechanized craft; a tripod threat which begins spraying a death-ray – evaporating to ash and dust all who are caught in its path. And so begins the carnage and devastation of an extra-terrestrial malicious force bent on the annihilation of humanity.
Ray takes his young daughter and estranged son, barely escaping the destruction of his entire neighborhood, on a journey to reunite them with their mother; a seemingly unselfish act, but in many ways, he doesn’t know what to do with his children when the world isn’t coming to an end, and the bizarre and terrible events have thrust him into a place where he can only think to turn to their mother. They will witness utter devastation from crashed planes, destroyed neighborhoods, rivers strewn with the dead, the ineffectiveness of the U.S. Military’ss counter-offensive, and the panic, stupidity, and futility of human desperation.
War of the Worlds, aside from modernization and a migration from Victorian England, is quite faithful to the source novel. Adapting to a post 9/11 sensibility, the action is dark and serious, and a somber tone permeates even the more incredible sequences. For the source material, this is perfect. End of the world movies come in several flavors, and excluding those that concern themselves with the walking dead, they generally fall in to two categories; ‘blow ‘em up’ popcorn-fests and disquieting dramas (think Wind in the Willows). Spielberg, with his ever-deft directorial hand and innate sense of action, has almost forged a third category; a serious toned, dark and gritty look at the emotional and human chaos of such a terrible act, but with the pacing, production value, and unrelenting action set-pieces of more standard summer-fare. The result is a refreshingly somber take on an action spectacle, with the familial dynamic – which is in no way original – serving here as an intriguing companion.
The family dynamic succeeds in this tale in large part from the script and the talent assembled to work it. Tom Cruise, who is still sorely underrated as an actor (and often unfairly ridiculed), is fascinating to watch. His character’s selfishness and flippant tendencies, which crash head-long into the necessities of survival and the inadequacies of his preparation, give Cruise a role of more dimension. Not unlike Spielberg and Cruise’s first collaboration, Minority Report, the result is a triumph for the actor. Dakota Fanning is able to play her character so well that moments that could have been grating (she has several freak-out moments) are able to stir our empathy. As her older brother, Robbie, is Justin Chatwin. The role is essentially written as a typical withdrawn teen, but Chatwin succeeds in having his character make sense, and, as with Fanning, creates a likeable, relatable young person.
Spielberg, directing from a screenplay by David Koepp (with Josh Friedman), keeps an energy and pace quite unlike his other works. While we are fortunate to be given character time before the destruction begins, Spielberg retains the familial focus during every sequence, whether it is the extraordinary action set-pieces as the aliens rise from the earth, or as they attack the exodus of survivors crossing the Hudson River by ferry, or the intense cat-and-mouse sequence in the basement of the crazy Ogilvy character (portrayed by Tim Robbins), the core of the scene is always family.
In almost every way, War of the Worlds is great entertainment. The visual effects are nothing short of splendid, created and rendered by the experienced hands of Industrial Light & Magic, and John Williams score, a dissonant and sorrowful blend of strings, brass, electronics, and human voice, is an audacious creation.
3D Rating: NA
This new 4K version is terrific, with deep blacks, strong shadow details (and there are plenty of sequences in the dark), and a magnificent amount of fine detail.
The Dolby Vision grading certainly aids the black levels and richness of some bolder colors used sparingly in this broodier, more washed out looking film. The organic reds of the spray the aliens spread is where the depth of the color and boldness stand out. And the film grain, oh the film grain is faithful, consistent, and magnificent.
The image is the most faithful to the way I remember the film looking theatrically, albeit with a bit more punch, and it has its glorious film grain present. Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski’s tendency to crash light and dark into scenes, with blooming bright spots, and a decidedly gritty sense to most scenes (which isn’t betrayed by the look of the visual effects) is unhindered here. I have commented on Kaminski’s influence on the look (and by extension, the tone) of Spielberg’s films in the past, and with the exception of the last Indiana Jones entry, Kaminski’s footprint is clear; a dark, foreboding style which favors fierce, if singular, lighting sources to create a pronounced effect on the subjects within the scene. Consider the Ferry sequence, with prominent lighting sources in scene, and then from the attacking tripods as well, creates a wonderful mix of bright lights and under lighting which delivers a vivid look. As I mentioned, colors are mostly subdued though, again, the red fertilizer spread by the aliens (another faithful element to the book) is vibrant.
This, to my eyes, is perfect.
Paramount brings War of the Worlds to the realm of 4K UHD with a thunderous Dolby Atmos track that defaults to Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for those not Atmos equipped.
The previous Blu-ray release case with an excellent English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track (as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital track options), War of the Worlds, but this latest edition has it pipped.
Holy COW! The initial attack sequence, as Ray and family steal the minivan and escape, will push your subwoofer to the limit. The action sequences have never sounded this enveloping. The cacophony of sound effects employed are produced with sublime clarity throughout the speakers, with the alien sound effects (especially the ‘death ray’) punching in the front channels, and when the scene calls for it, delivering in the throughout. Morgan Freeman’s fine narration is eerily lifelike in the center channel (bookending the film).
Special Features: 4/5
No new special features, but everything previously included with the Blu-ray releases is here on the included Blu-ray (which is a repackage of that earlier release). No special features included on the 4K disc.
Revisiting the Invasion (7:39): Director Steven Spielberg discusses the ideas of alien invasions, and the original War of the Worlds. He discusses influences such as This Island Earth and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (and their metaphors for the Communist threat) and how the War of the Worlds tale now speaks allegorically of post 9/11 America. Tom Cruise shares how his second collaboration with this director came about, and how writer David Koepp’s talents influenced what should ‘not’ be in this ‘end of the world’ film.
The H.G. Wells Legacy (6:34): Family members of author Wells discuss their famous relative.
Steven Spielberg and the Original War of the Worlds (7:59): Spielberg discusses the original film and bringing Gene Berry and Ann Robinson from the 1953 film version for cameo’s, and we hear from Dennis Muren (a special and visual effects God) which is always a treat. There are some great discussions of the original 1953 film from the stars and behind the scenes shots from that film.
Characters: The Family Unit (13:21): A look at creating the family at the heart of the film, from their costumes to demeanors and to the casting.
Previsualizations (7:42): Previsualizing sequences helps directors, DoP’s, and visual effects crews plan sequences when the day of filming arrives, and Spielberg, a long-time a fan of creating on the day, relied upon pre-vis for the complex visual effects sequences, animating the storyboards to facilitate smoother day-of filming.
Production Diaries (1:32:00): Broken in to four chapters (East Cost: Beginning (22:30), East Coast: Exile (19:39), West Coast: Destruction (27:29), and West Coast: War (22:20), this extra feature follows the creation of the film, with interviews with principle production players (including Janusz Kiminski, Colin Wilson and Kathleen Kennedy (producers), Visual effects crew, and more). The look behind creating some of the impressive sets, such as the plane crash (which admittedly produces some of the bigger logic strains), is good to see.
Designing the Enemy: Tripods and Aliens (14:07): Creating the Tripods to be scary themselves (and not just vehicles carrying something that is scary), was a wise decision, and a look at some concept designs is welcome. The previsualizations and artist concepts of the Tripods and Aliens show the evolution of the design to its final point, which achieves its aims (to frighten and step just a little outside what we have long seen before).
Scoring War of the Worlds (11:56): Legendary composer John Williams discusses his scoring of War of the Worlds in intriguing detail. Score lovers will relish this brief 12 minutes.
We are Not Alone (3:14): An odd three minutes which merely shares Spielberg’s father’s inspiration to conjure imagination when looking up at the stars.
Galleries: Images of Costume Designer Joanna Johnston, Production Stills, Behind the Scenes, and production sketches can be perused using your remote.
Theatrical Teaser Trailer (HD) (1:59)
Though there are some legitimate quibbles about the logic found in some sequences (I suppose one could argue that the electromagnetic pulse which shut off all electricity did not have the same effects on batteries, allowing for the silly video-camera shot), Spielberg’s take on War of the Worlds is dark, bold, and entertaining. The impressive destructive visual-effects sequences are dramatic, thrilling, and terrifying in ways most ‘end-of-the-world’ films can’t approach. H.G. Wells wrote of Martians, creatures from Mars which looked upon our planet with envy; no such origin determination is made here (thankfully), though in the opening sequence, the Red Planet is employed cleverly, perhaps alluding to the origins, or simply as a tip of the hat to the source material.
In a way similar to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, the national and global destruction of cities and nations is not exploited. It is only heard of in Signs, in Worlds we experience the destruction only as the family we follow witnesses, and thus, despite being a stone’s throw from New York City, we are not shown scenes of its destruction (again, thankfully). It is a template that serves the more intimate effects of this cataclysm far better than grand scenes of landmarks succumbing to alien assault.
Spielberg’s third film concerning aliens coming to earth is a departure from the friendly extra-terrestrials of his first two outings (E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). While not as remarkable of defining as those first two adventures, War of the Worlds is still fine entertainment, and certainly ranks high among the adaptations of H.G Wells’ work.
And this UHD version is, hands down, the one to watch! Highly Recommended.
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