Time has Finally Caught Up with Minority Report and War of the Worlds.
Since it’s the 4th of July, I’ll be watching Jaws today, along with everyone else in this country because that is the thing to do. And while I believe Jaws is still Spielberg’s best film, I’ve seen it hundreds of times, I’ve just recently revisited and re-evaluated 2002’s Minority Report and 2005’s War of the Worlds.
For whatever reason, these two films resonate today more than they ever did in the time of their release. I can’t tell if it’s just the surreal moment we’re living through twenty years into the new millennium, in the post-9/11, post-COVID America or if I have changed. Either way, I was astonished at how riveting, deep, well written and well acted these films are.
Maybe it’s that Hollywood movies aren’t really movies anymore, not in the way they used to be. They don’t really have stories. Superhero movies are not really movies. Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings were ongoing sagas that contained life lessons, perhaps, but the stakes weren’t all that high. Did you ever worry anyone was going to die in them, for instance? You never did because they don’t. The reason being, they can’t kill the characters they need for sequels and reboots.
Minority Report could have been made now as a response to the climate of fear we find ourselves in. We’re all being monitored and watched all of the time by each other, by technology, by the government. After living through this past year, it does not seem inconceivable that our government would prosecute people for crimes not yet committed. We’re in a place now where people are so afraid of speaking their minds that they keep quiet. One wrong opinion might mean the end of a job, status, a family. This kind of tense paranoia is threaded all through Minority Report, which was clearly meant as a response to our post-9/11 world.
War of the Worlds seems to express so much of the dystopian atmosphere of this past year. The helplessness, the fear, the violence, the division. The story of aliens invading the planet has always been a great metaphor for collective fear, and even war. What’s so surprising about it after all of this time, almost 20 years since it was released in 2005, is how good the story is. Do big-budget films even bother with story anymore?
When War of the Worlds first came out, I wrote it off as “lesser Spielberg” and never watched it again. I thought it was bad, cheesy, overblown. Watching it now, I see it as a near-masterpiece. And only part of that has to do with the story, which is on the level of Shakespeare compared to what passes for movies now, but much of it is the team Spielberg has assembled. The top of that list is, without a doubt, John Williams. There is Jaws, of course, there is Raiders, there is Close Encounters — but there is also War of the Worlds. If that isn’t enough, you have the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski – which, again, is on a level you just don’t see with big-budget movies anymore. It is such a dance of light, which is signature Spielberg, of course, but also signature Kaminski.
I’ve seen the movie before but somehow I must have missed the absolute brilliance of this scene:
Spielberg takes his time building suspense in this scene (you have to watch it on Youtube – it won’t play from here), doesn’t rush it, doesn’t cheapen it. The reason you are involved in the scene is that you care about the characters. I’d forgotten what a great leading man Tom Cruise was, and probably still is. In this, and in Minority Report, he is able to bring an everyman quality to extraordinary circumstances like a Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock movies.
The same team had assembled for 2002’s Minority Report – John Williams, Michael Kahn, Janusz Kaminski and you can see their genius, along with Spielberg’s, in this absolutely jaw-dropping sequence — just listen to Williams’ score for this scene:
Moody, serious, terrifying, melancholy – these are the words that come to mind when I think about these two films. You could probably add Spielberg’s A.I. to that list of moody sci-fi films but I was mainly focusing on the Spielberg/Cruise collaboration. Cruise might end up being one of Spielberg’s best leading men, certainly right up there with Harrison Ford.
It’s probably that Cruise plays both roles completely straight, without the need to be funny or charming but just caught in a struggle for his own survival. In both films, he’s also tasked with saving a female who can’t fend for herself. That would be Samantha Morton as a Precog in Minority Report and Dakota Fanning as Cruise’s young daughter in War of the Worlds. In addition to it being an automatic way to make his character more heroic, it also gives him a slight handicap. His masculinity and vulnerability are on display simultaneously. Whatever it is, it makes for an exciting collaboration between director and star. It made me miss Tom Cruise in movies that aren’t Mission Impossible. He’s not so easily replaced, as it turns out.
War of the Worlds was nominated for three Oscars, including Visual Effects, which it lost to King Kong. It should have been nominated for Score. Minority Report was only nominated for one Oscar for Sound.
So if you’re looking for movies to watch on this day, I would highly recommend Minority Report and War of the Worlds.