Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. An aura of faintly sick irony pervades both of this week's subjects, one of which being an entertainment concerning devastating urban trauma, the other a particularly gruelling display of horror taking place underground. Strange how these things work out, isn't it?
A Family at War (of the Worlds)
It's taken a few years for anyone to follow-up the (qualified) success of 2002's adaptation of HG Wells' The Time Machine, but at least the latest film based on the master's work has some serious clout behind it. I refer, of course, to the mega-budget version of War of the Worlds (they could afford a lot of things, but clearly not a definite article), directed by Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg's film stars Tom Cruise as Ray, a blue-collar kinda guy whose obvious skills as an ace crane-driver and mechanic don't stop him from being, as his children accurately point out, a bit of an asshole. His flat is untidy, his fridge virtually empty, and he's completely unaware that his daughter (former Midwich resident Dakota Fanning) is disabled1. Yet all this doesn't stop his ex-wife (Miranda Otto, barely appearing) from dumping them on him whe she goes away with her new bloke. However, over the course of one particularly fraught weekend Ray learns the value of being being a proper paternal figure, of responsibility, of keeping proper food in the house, and all the usual family value stuff you can probably recite for yourselves.
(Perhaps that synopsis is a little bit msleading as the movie also contains a good deal of other material, much of it far from peripheral, about civilisation being virtually destroyed by alien invaders whose hobbies include drinking blood, playing the tuba, indulging in ludicrously long-term planning, and forgetting to have their jabs before travelling abroad.)
Once you get past the change in locale and the parental guff, this is actually an astonishingly faithful adaptation of the legendary novel, faintly iffy ending and all. The tripedal Fighting Machines reach the screen intact and are appropriately iconic, even if the Martians themselves (look, it doesn't say they're not from Mars, all right?) look a bit too much like the Independence Day aliens. I was quite curious to see how Spielberg would distinguish his movie from ID4 and the multitude of other War of the Worlds rip-offs that have preceded it to the screen. And he manages it quite inventively, by resolutely making this a film about a handful of characters caught up in a catastrophe - a personal film, rather than a full-blown epic. The story unfolds from Ray's perspective, rather than that of a scientist or fighter pilot or the president - there's no sense of a wider picture beyond all-consuming chaos and desperation, and the result is a pervasive atmosphere of nervy unease. Most of the big set-pieces of the Fighting Machines destroying cities and crushing all resistance happen off-screen, definitely not what one would expect from a summer blockbuster.
Equally unexpected is the rather linear storyline (basically Tom and the kids running away from the Martians for two hours). But this does give the film a certainty latitude, which Spielberg uses to produce a series of stunning set-piece sequences, a dazzling showcase for his unmatched directorial skills. His mastery of technique is casual but undeniable. a longish segment where Cruise hides in a cellar with Tim Robbins (playing an amalgam of two characters from the novel) probably outstays its welcome a bit, but Robbins is always good value even if the scenes between him (6' 5") and Cruise (5' 7") vaguely recall Gandalf and Bilbo having a natter.
It would of course be inconsiderate not to mention all the references to Byron Haskin's 1953 adaptation of the story, of which there are many (including the obligatory cameos by the original leads), nor the obvious allegorial overtones that surround any modern American disaster movie. Suffice to say that at one point Cruise arrives home caked in dust like a Ground Zero survivor, at another he passes one of those boards displaying home-made posters of mssing loved ones, and his son explicitly compares the Martian invasion to a terrorist attack. As subtexts go it's not exactly deeply buried (though to be fair the film lends itself to a rather more subversive reading equally well, suggesting Spielberg is playing it safe as usual).
This of course doesn't stop War of the Worlds being a very solid piece of entertainment, for all the illogicalities embedded in the story (some courtesy of Wells, who can't really be blamed, some of adaptors David Koepp and Josh Friedman, who can). Spielberg and Cruise are both on form and the film has considerable novelty value. Definitely worth a look.
How times change. A few years ago it seemed that nearly every British horror movie had a khaki tint to it, and one of the best of these was Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers. This year's horror a la mode tends toward subterranean horridness, with the trail ickily blazed by Creep back in February. And now we have The Descent, a quite similar (but definitely superior film) written and directed by Marshall, again. This guy's gonna get typed...
Trying to recover from a personal tragedy, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) embarks on a sort of adventure holiday with five of her feisty girlfriends. They spend the start of the film drinking, swearing, being spunky and generally acting like they're auditioning for a commercial for feminine hygiene products. And then the main event of their trip gets underway: an expedition into a cave system underneath the Appalachian mountains. As you can probably guess, things do not go According To Plan, as they find themselves sealed in, short on supplies, and increasingly aware that there are some very foul things in the deep places of the earth...
Well, you always know pretty much what's coming at any given point in The Descent, but that doesn't stop it being the most twitchily effective horror movie I've seen in a very long time. It grips like a vice from very near the start and doesn't relax until the surprisingly low-key ending arrives - groans and moans drifted around the theatre where I saw it, so it wasn't just me. Marshall expertly ratchets up the tension - it isn't until nearly halfway into the film that he wheels on his real nasties, but all the scenes with the characters trapped underground, caught in rockfalls, dangling over bottomless abysses, and suffering grisly accidental injuries were quite nerve-shredding enough on their own.
And the monsters themselves are very effective too - okay, so they're very nearly Gollum-a-likes, but these Pellucidarean chavs look and behave convincingly and the rationale behind them, though barely given, is just about plausible. My only real criticism of The Descent, other than to mention some duff but forgivable CGI, is that it's set in American caves rather than under, for example, the Yorkshire Dales (even though it was filmed in the UK). Either this is a peculiar attempt to appeal to the US market (a lead character is American, which may be for the same reason) or Marshall just can't bring himself to take the idea of monsters under Wharfedale seriously (clearly he hasn't met the locals). As it is his film does seem rather like an extra-length and extra-gory episode of The X Files2, which isn't necessarily a problem but does mean it feels rather more derivative than it absolutely needed to.
Well, anyway. It's an impressively well-mounted film, and the acting is up to scratch. As someone who's done a tiny amount of caving, I was tremendously impressed by the fact that Marshall managed to make a film underground at all, let alone one as effective as this, because I was totally convinced it was shot in a real cave system. But apparently the whole thing was done on sets, so I suppose I should just be tremendously impressed with the production designs instead.
In the end The Descent is just a very simple and very effective film, made with considerable panache and energy. It doesn't have a deep subtext or a subtle, misleading plot. It doesn't have tremendous depths of characterisation or fantastic virtuoso camerawork. But what it does have is the burning desire to scare the audience nearly to the point of trauma, and the skill to very nearly achieve this. Recommended.