Saturday, February 24, 2007

Spielberg: 30 Years of Blockbusters part II

Both Jaws and War of the Worlds revolve around the concept of an ‘other’ invading and threatening the American way of life. Spielberg uses this ‘other’ in two ways: 1) to outline a political hierarchy, focusing specifically on the everyman in relation to familial themes, and 2) to generate escalating amounts of excitement with the aid of special effects. Essentially, if one were to boil the Spielberg blockbuster down to a formula, this use of the ‘other’ would stand as the crux of his films. In the case of Jaws and War of the Worlds, it acts as the template for plot design.

Jaws centers on the small beachside community of Amity, a town that relies on summer tourism to create revenue. When a Great White shark threatens the town’s shorelines, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is faced with a dilemma – pressured to keep the beaches open by local businessmen and politicians, he must decide between jeopardizing public safety or destroying community income. Without ever drawing our attention away from the problem of the shark, Spielberg hints at the generic Americanization of Amity through the use of a non-star cast, subtle visuals and dialogue. Visually, Amity is characterized by white-wash buildings, wooden docks and picket fences. It is no mistaking that one scene takes place in front of a parade, another at town hall. And when we hear locals complain to Chief Brody about “kids’ karate chopping my fence”, “sick vandalism”, and “parking violations”, it only serves to remind us of the nonspecific American setting. Similarly, the destiny of those who ultimately take on the shark reflects Spielberg’s affinity for the average man; Quint (Robert Shaw), the right-winged macho shark hunter, is killed, while Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the intellectual left, is impaired, leaving Brody, the everyman cop, to successfully destroy the shark (Biskind 279). Ultimately, this works to effectively produce the true ‘horror’ aspect of the film. Spielberg’s assertion of the main protagonist as the generic everyman creates a direct connection with the spectator. When audiences see the Great White tear apart a young child near the beach, they realize that the people on screen are easily substituted: we place ourselves within the film.

War of the Worlds attempts to establish a similar sense of blue collar ambiguity, but ultimately fails to do so for several reasons. The film begins on the Jersey City docks, introducing protagonist Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise). Like a modern Fred Flintstone, Ferrier operates a large crane, stacking loading boxes near the water. He looks grungy in a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and workman gloves. Dialogue establishes that Ferrier works long hours, and that he belongs to a workers union. This scene lasts about two minutes until a cut shifts to Ferrier’s small ranch style home, where he meets his kids, products of a failed marriage. This is followed by about seven minutes worth of character development which demonstrate that 1) Ray neglects his kids and 2) the kids do not like Ray. Spielberg isn’t working very subtlety here; unlike in Jaws, where the blue collar-ness weaves in and out of the story, War of the Worlds very bluntly places its small-town emphasis right at the beginning, failing to resonate throughout the rest of the film, resulting in a lack of connection between the film’s characters and its audience. In addition, the presence of megastar Tom Cruise detracts from the believability of the story. One of the highest paid actors in the world, Cruise generally portrays upper-class aggressors (Eyes Wide Shut) or pretty boy action heroes (Mission Impossible, Top Gun). With this iconic connection already firmly planted in the audience’s mind, it makes it difficult to see Cruise as a dead beat union worker, negating the effect audience alignment with characters in the film.

Part III Coming Soon!
Check out Spielberg Part I!

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