Up until 2005, I thought of Tom Cruise as a movie star who was a small but overall net positive in my decision whether to see a movie. He had a higher hit rate than most but he wasn’t a guaranteed sale. I’ve still never seen Far and Away, but I told my parents that I did back in 1992 because I didn’t want them to know that I saw Basic Instinct with a girl I liked. Maybe that’s how I wrap this feature up, by watching the movie I’ve lied about seeing for twenty-eight years.
Anyway, 2005 was the couch jump year. The year Cruise started acting weird about his new relationship with Katie Holmes and the Scientology stuff became a thing and he yelled at Matt Lauer, and like a lot of people I know, I punched out on Tom Cruise for a while. I got back on board with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but it still took a while to embrace Cruise as a performer separate from that franchise. My original intent here was to watch and review all of his movies between the couch jump and Ghost Protocol, but there aren’t that many. So now the plan is to watch everything post-Oprah. This includes four Mission Impossible movies, two Jack Reachers, and Edge of Tomorrow, so even if everything else is a bust, I’m still pretty psyched. And I’m starting here with 2005’s War of the Worlds.
Before I start, it’s worth noting a couple of things. That Oprah couch moment was blown out of proportion almost immediately. Amy Nicholson has talked at length about this, but in short, he doesn’t jump on the couch. There’s no jumping. In fact, Oprah tells him to stand on the couch and say how he feels about then girlfriend Katie Holmes, and he does exactly as she requests. The weird one in the scene is Oprah. And there was that blowout with Matt Lauer, and I think history is on Tom’s side here. “Glib” is actually the nicest thing anything has said about Lauer in years. The Scientology is weird but not uncommon in Hollywood. Frankly, unless somebody is an outright Holocaust denier or James Woods, I can’t necessarily use their beliefs as a reason not to enjoy something. You think I’m not going to re-watch Justified just because Nick Searcy is a MAGA guy?
Anyway, War of the Words is based on the 1897 H.G. Wells novel. It’s most famous for the Orson Welles radio play in 1939 which reportedly caused panic in listeners who didn’t realize it was a work of fiction. That’s a thing we’ve always been told, but the broadcast didn’t have many listeners and apparently most of what you hear is apocryphal. But assuming everything you’ve always heard is true, man, that’s wild. People not only had to ignore the multiple announcements that the program was a work of fiction, that this purported emergency bulletin had commercial breaks, that there was no evidence of an alien invasion in the outside world, and that the second half of the program ditches the news bulletin format for straightforward narrative. What I’m saying is that people were dumb. They also ran and hid because they thought a train was headed for them the first time they saw a movie. Star Wars is famous not because it’s good but because it’s the first time our dumb ancestors absorbed fiction without thinking it was something happening to them in the room at that moment.
The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, is faithful to the essence of the radio play, but we’ll get to that in a bit because this is about Tom Cruise. And this movie is one of the very few where Cruise plays a father. As I write this, I don’t know if he ever did it before or again and I’ll look into that at some point. But it’s weird to see, and I legitimately thought he had to be their uncle for most of the movie because he feels like an uncle. And it’s easy to put that on Cruise, but also, there’s a reason he got divorced and doesn’t see the kids that often. We know he’s a dad, we have no idea if he’s a good dad. But the thing that really jumps out about his relationship with his kids is something Spielberg understands – it’s weird to see Tom Cruise do normal stuff. It’s weird to see him play catch with his a-hole son. The scene has a strange weight just because it’s Tom Cruise. Cruise’s Ray Ferrier calming his young daughter (Dakota Fanning) by singing to her is strange and it feels more urgent. You know the world is boned because this guy is singing a lullaby and it couldn’t seem less natural. Spielberg gets that Tom Cruise doing normal stuff is offputting and alien and it keeps us off-balance.
This is a movie that didn’t appeal to me on release and it has just never shown up on my radar in the fifteen years since, but here’s the thing. It’s good. It’s neither Spielberg nor Cruise’s best, but I had a blast. The alien ships are bizarre and threatening and Spielberg’s approach is to never show us anything more than the characters can see. Ray and the kids are trying to get to their mother in Boston and the world is erupting into chaos around them and all they know is what they’re experiencing. We don’t know where the aliens come from or what their aim is beyond slaughter because there’s no way for Ray to know. Visitors from another world are killing everybody and we’re on the run. And it’s great because Spielberg has made movies about aliens coming to Earth in the past, but there’s always a need for communication or love at the heart of it, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. These aliens want to wreck stuff and watch us die and no kid is going to warm their hearts for even a second.
And so, as wild as the alien designs are, War gets real mileage out of smaller, more relatable terrors. A ferry tipping over and sending cars into the water on top of panicked swimmers. A moving train on fire. A crowd blocking Ray’s car. And this movie, which I remind you came out in 2005, evokes 9/11 in a way that’s shocking at first and then feels completely appropriate. What visual evokes unfocused terror more than people covered in ash that’s coming from everywhere and nowhere in particular? It’s incredibly effective and I wasn’t anticipating that because nobody has ever talked about War of the Worlds. It was released, it made a lot of money, and nobody ever said a word about it. So I went in about as clean as possible and that made the experience better.
There’s a great sequence that involves Ray and his daughter hiding out in a wrecked basement with another survivor (played by Tim Robbins) who at first seems to be a savior and turns out to be a lunatic. It’s a fantastic stretch of the movie with Ray keeping him in check while the whole group also dodges a probe. I was on the edge of my seat for this whole scene as the probe snaked around beams and furniture and three people just tried to stay out of the sight line. It all ends with some shocking offscreen brutality that probably should have made me think of Ray differently, but he’s still Tom Cruise and he always seems like he might have to take some extreme measures if he has to and it feels like he’s probably justified. It’s weird that he’s not hanging from a plane or administering a beatdown, you know?
My only real knock on War of the Worlds is the one thing that almost definitely had to be in the movie, and that’s the ending. Technically this is a SPOILEE WARNING but also you’ve had 123 years to find out how War of the Worlds ends. At this point, it isn’t on me. Anyway, germs kill the aliens. If you don’t use that ending, it’s not really War of the Worlds and you’re free to call it something else. Here’s the thing. That’s a dumb ending. It couldn’t be less satisfying. It’s almost a literal deus ex machina . The aliens caught a cold and had to stop murdering. I hate it. I wish there’d been some kind of tweak where the problem was dealt with offscreen, possibly by the Tom Cruise character from a different movie. But this invasion that has maybe been planned for thousands of years falling apart because they didn’t check whether the air would kill them is a bad ending. Yeah, I’m calling you out, H.G. Wells. You’ve been dead for a century and I think I could take you.
It made for a good start to this feature – I don’t know why I assumed this would be bad, but I was wrong. I like War of the Worlds and Cruise is a great choice for the lead. His inability to not be a movie star adds a strange layer that makes the whole thing more effective. I was wrong not to see this in 2005.
Next time, it’s Mission: Impossible III and I can’t remember if I’ve seen that or not. We’ll find out together!