The first storm that must be weathered in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is not the misdiagnosed electrical storm that rolls in over a blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood, and disobeys a couple of basic laws of nature: "That is so weird. The wind is blowing toward the storm." And: "Where's the thunder?" That storm is easy and fun to get through ("Rachel, want to see something cool?"), all the way to the little pothole in the middle of the intersection where lightning has struck more than twice, and then to the heaving and cracking of the pavement around it, the breaking up of the church on the corner, the blink-of-an-eye materialization of a craterlike sinkhole and the rising out of it of a towering tripod possessed of a disintegrating death ray. If the publicists want us to abbreviate the title as WOW, they have their justification.
An earlier and tougher storm to weather, though, is the omniscient opening narration (in the mellow tones of Morgan Freeman, our Narrator Supremo, after Million Dollar Baby, March of the Penguins, et al.), which revises only slightly the opening of the original H.G. Wells novel: "No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st Century...." Oh, really? No one today would have believed that aliens were watching us? Did our narrator sleep through the 20th Century? Was he born yesterday? This is unmistakably a pre-science-fiction preamble (the term did not come into use for decades after the publication of Wells's novel in 1898), and it raises the specter of that familiar Spielberg arrogance -- more frightening than any space alien -- that presumes no subject has been done on screen until Spielberg does it: the Holocaust, WWII, slavery, whatever.
The alien-invasion subgenre, as everyone now knows, blossomed during the Cold War, fertilized by fears of Communist takeover; and it's quite reasonable, quite knowledgeable, to deduce that 9/11 and its aftermath could dump some fresh manure in the field. Spielberg makes damn good and sure that no one will miss the relevance: the "sleeper cells" hidden beneath American streets; the hero's coat of ashes fabricated from his incinerated fellow citizens; the shower of clothes from the sky; the bulletin board of the "missing"; and of course the natural question in the first confusion, "Is it the terrorists?"
All of that seems legitimate enough. This is a serious film in a way that Independence Day, merrily blowing up the White House so few years ago, didn't need to be, want to be, or pretend to be. There's something of an air of penitence in Spielberg's choice at this time to do an anti-Close Encounters, an anti-E.T. Or if not quite penitence, then a reappraisal, a caveat. He would appear to have seen a new light. And if his conversion falls short of total renunciation, it at least infuses him with a new zeal. (From A.I. to The Terminal, he has really been dragging.) The narrow focus of the action -- a divorced dad of limited parenting skills, stuck with his two pouty children for the weekend -- is hardly the cost-cutting tactic it would have been in the Fifties (an unprecedented price tag of $185 million has been mentioned), but it nonetheless imposes a measure of modesty, a concentration of forces. And a number of the events and sights on their trek back to Mom are conceived and realized with imagination and power: the riot over their car among fellow refugees on foot; the capsizing of the ferry; the flaming train roaring through a railroad crossing; the bodies floating down the river like logs to the lumber mill; the mist of blood emanating from the "processed" humans. And a running-scared Tom Cruise, deglamorized as a dock worker, proves conclusively what we all suspected, that he's better off when sticking to a script than when winging it on a talk show.
Still, the decision to re-do the seminal alien-invasion story, rather than to do a new one, tends to keep aloft the specter of Spielbergian arrogance. In spite of the gracious gran-and-gramps cameos for Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the two stars of the commendable 1953 treatment of the novel, there is the inescapable implication that that version didn't have the wherewithal to do the job right. Surely the job needn't have been re-done in order for the story to acquire a new, a post-9/11 resonance. The old movie, the old novel, will already have acquired that resonance. But Spielberg has always been bound by literal-mindedness. For him, a story can't speak of terrorists unless someone in it speaks of terrorists. And it can't speak to the millions without spending the millions. No matter how eye-popping his special effects may be, no matter how much "improved" over those of a half-century ago, we are at every turn confronted by his belief in the almighty dollar, his infatuation with size, his complacent certainty that bigger is always better, and his dependence on mere loudness and suddenness to elicit a response from his audience. And his trusty old device of the temporary death, the takesy-backsy death, the just-fooling death, would indicate that his penitence for E.T. lacks a little something in sincerity.
Dark Water bears a certain similarity to War of the Worlds, a rhetorical, a metaphorical similarity. It is difficult enough being a divorced parent, in this case the mother, finding an apartment she can afford, taking a nearby job she doesn't want, coping with migraines, plumbing problems, an evasive landlord, a creepy concierge, a custody suit, and so forth -- without also being haunted by an unquiet ghost. That last, like an alien invasion, may be one difficulty too many. Dark Water arrives as yet another remake of a Japanese horror film, but not, please, "just another." It is more coherent, more cohesive, more cogent, than any others I've seen, any Ring, any Grudge, any at all. It has a palpable theme, motherhood, and an evocative visual motif, water, and these have been worked out meticulously and efficiently in the screenplay of Rafael Yglesias. And the action is firmly ensconced in a specific locale, Roosevelt Island, formerly Welfare Island, a tram ride from the bright lights of Manhattan, but a world apart, a world enclosed, with its ugly, utilitarian high-rise apartments "in the Brutalist Style," exuding all the warmth and charm of the postwar Communist Bloc. So firmly and so specific, in fact, that the film decisively cuts itself free from its source. (Which I confess I haven't seen.) The recent rush to plunder Japanese horrors, born of Hollywood's creative indolence and timidity, seems to me to have been a good thing insofar as it has shifted the focus of horror away from special-effects "thrill rides" and more toward mood and atmosphere. There is here a kind of Barton Fink feeling, practically a feeling of Repulsion, in the sheer physical oppression (the persistent rain, the low-watt lights, the balky elevator, the stain on the ceiling, the drip of oil-black water, the clump of hair coughed out of the bathroom faucet); and the cinematography of Affonso Beato (an Almodóvar man, plus Ghost World, most notably) admits as little color as possible, preferably gloomy, gray, greeny, yellowy, sickly color. The film would be sufficiently horrific even without the ghost, though it would then be missing two or three delectable frissons.