‘War Of The Worlds’: Spielberg’s New Space Shot; ‘Undead’ Is Lifeless, By Kurt Loder

A great director's problematic film and, from Australia, a lesson in how to succeed at being really bad.

“War Of The Worlds”: E.T. Goes Over To The Dark Side

Since it’s a Steven Spielberg movie, you figure you’re going to see some wonderful things; and you do, you do. Pretty quickly, too. The opening setup is very economical. We meet Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a nice-guy New Jersey dock worker, on a day that his well-to-do ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) is bringing their two children over for some quality joint-custody time. The kids — surly teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and wise-way-beyond-her-years Rachel (Dakota Fanning) — don’t much enjoy these paternal visits. Their dad, living practically right under a bridge in his run-down house, is kind of a loser, unlike mom, who has wisely remarried into the upper classes whence she came.

No sooner has Mary Ann driven off than things start getting weird. The sky fills up with roiling, gun-metal-gray CGI clouds; thunder booms and big flashes of lightning stab down out of the sky right into the ground. On local TV screens, we see news reports about identical electro-magnetic storms that have suddenly arisen all over the world. Then the town’s electricity cuts out, a church steeple topples over into the street, and the ground starts cracking apart. “There’s something down there,” says a frightened cop, “and it’s moving.” Indeed it is: up out of the bowels of the earth rises a towering three-legged battle machine, looking like some sort of huge, malignant insect. As people begin to flee in terror, the tripod shoots out rays that vaporize them in mid-stride. Full-scale panic ensues as more and more of these monsters appear, and the director plunges us right into the center of it all. It’s very scary.

As the killer tripods stalk the countryside, spreading ruin all around, Ray and his children take refuge in a rural farmhouse with a man named Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Harlan has already lost his family, and he seems a little unbalanced. But he does have a very clear idea of what’s going on. “This is not a war,” he tells Ray, “any more than there’s a war between men and maggots. This is an extermination.”

“War of the Worlds” is as much a disaster movie as it is a straight sci-fi horror film. Some of the spectacular visual effects — like an enormous bridge crumbling and a capsizing ferry hurling passengers and cargo into dark churning waters — recall the skeltering big-budget chaos of such ’70s disaster epics as “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” And the roads filled with stunned and miserable people driven into homeless flight by the invaders immediately call to mind the sort of faraway refugee footage that has become a staple of international news reportage.

But Steven Spielberg, working once again with special-effects master Dennis Muren, has also created sights — like a shoal of bodies drifting down a moonlit river, and a passenger train barreling through a rural railroad crossing with every car eerily aflame — that have a unique psychological resonance. And while the desperate hide-and-seek encounter with a serpentine alien probe in the basement of Harlan’s farmhouse echoes a sequence in the original, 1953 “War of the Worlds” (which featured trailblazing sci-fi imagery by another FX eminence, George Pal), Spielberg’s rendition is updated with inventive complexity. We also know we’re in the presence of a classy director when we see Ray close a door behind him after he’s stepped into another room to deal with a lethal character, and then, after a minute or so, simply step back out again, eloquently alone.

“War of the Worlds” sweeps you up and expertly carries you along from one hubbub to the next, in a flurry of hand-held, you-are-there images provided by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The picture begins with a rip-tide pull, but by the end, its power has ebbed considerably. The story’s central flaw, dictated by the 1898 H.G. Wells novel on which both subsequent movies have been based, is its conclusion, which is abrupt and unsatisfying. Another irritating problem, unique to this picture, is the disappearance in the first third of the film of a character who suddenly just reappears at the end, with no explanation of how he’s managed to do so.

There are very good performances in the film by Dakota Fanning — the most amazing 11-year-old actress in America — and by Tim Robbins, who brings mingled overtones of grief and malevolence to his part. As for Tom Cruise, those who love him will love him in this, and those who don’t, won’t. He puts a lot of energy into his performance, and when he’s interacting with the children, he’s warm and funny. But he seems an unlikely forklift operator, and the notion of his irredeemably blue-collar character having once been married to a woman from the New England aristocracy seems unlikelier yet.

Despite its focus on a sundered family, “War of the Worlds” doesn’t appear to be a movie in which Spielberg has invested a lot of his own feelings — not in the way that he has in such past films as “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” This picture is more like a professional exercise in film-buff nostalgia. True, the professional in this case is also an artist. But the movie leaves you feeling let-down and quarrelsome. There are much worse films out there right now; and as you’ll notice in the trailers that precede this one when you see it, there are much worse ones on the way. But to say that this one is much better than those is the faintest possible praise for a director of Steven Spielberg’s gifts.

(“War of the Worlds” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

“Undead”: Plan 10 From Outer Space

This Australian zombie import is such a thoroughly bad movie — written, acted and shot at the very lowest levels of know-how — that you can’t help wondering, midway through what seems like its 10-hour running time, whether you’re missing something; whether the film might have some other agenda which isn’t immediately apparent. I’ve decided the answer is yes.

The first hint comes right at the beginning, in an opening shaky-cam view of the star-filled heavens that suggests a multi-punctured sheet of black paper with a flashlight behind it. Then there’s a close-up of a woman mutely demonstrating her ability to act badly without saying a word. This bold one-two punch of dismal ineptitude can summon to mind only one man: Ed Wood.

A bit later, ’round about hour three, there occurs a car ride that goes on rather longer than seems necessary; then there’s a scary guy in a cape who’s not likely to scare anybody over the age of six; and then — the clincher — a hulking bearded guy in a cheap fedora who might as well have the name “Torgo” tattooed across his nose. Yes, these teasing allusions must surely constitute a salute to “‘Manos,’ the Hands of Fate,” perennial front-runner in the worst-movie-ever-made derby.

And what is “Undead” about? Oh, zombies and space aliens and stuff. There’s lots of bought-by-the-bucket blood splashed around, and lots of acting so terrible that it barely rises above the level of rant. Oddly, though, considerable care has been taken with the film’s low-budget effects (one of the reasons it took two and a half money-scavenging years to make); and there is at least one image — a host of softly glowing human bodies hanging like tree ornaments in the night sky — that has a strange, spectral beauty. There’s also a punch-out between a man and a killer fish that’s kind of funny, but it goes on too long. The rest of the movie is virtually unwatchable.

I think that like the recent “High Tension,” “Undead” is up to something other than that which would appear to be obvious. In the same way that “High Tension” presents itself as a tribute to ’70s slasher films, “Undead” seeks to genuflect in the direction of titanically bad movies like “‘Manos’” and Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” But this is an absurd enterprise. “High Tension,” as dreary as it is, at least endeavors to salute a film genre that includes some good films. “Undead” aspires to emulate a genre that is by definition composed entirely of very, very bad films. To the extent that it succeeds in its tributary quest, it must fail as a movie.

A picture like “‘Manos,’” which was greeted upon its long-ago release with derision (when it was greeted with anything at all), is now looked upon in some quarters as an ironic delight. But what’s delightful about it, and about other films of its blighted ilk, is the peculiar combination of passion and incompetence with which they were made. A movie like “Undead” is too knowing to succeed in this regard. You can’t fake simple-minded passion; and simple incompetence is uninteresting without it. I suppose that over the course of the next 40 or 50 years, “Undead” could accrue a coterie of irony-mongering admirers. Right now, though, you can skip it.

—Kurt Loder

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