Sully's Literary Comments

Chasing Spielberg

One of the most oft told tales from the Athens shoot for Stephen Spielberg's War of the Worlds, is the dramatic scramble Tom Cruise makes with Dakota Fanning to make the ferry.

The chase is one of the critical pieces in nearly every action film, and often makes up for weak character or poor plotting. With Spielberg's tales often based on criteria other than traditional cause and effect plots, the chase scene becomes a critical element in keeping the interest of modern viewers.

A well-crafted chase scene creates automatic sympathy for the pursued and distrust of the pursuers that other aspects of development might not justify.

While not all of Spielberg's films use the chase at its center, most do. Even the otherwise symbolically sophisticated Close Encounters, which SF writer Brian Adlis described as "complex in its H.G. Wells-like depiction of its main character" uses the chase scene in several ways to heighten interest in minimally dramatic plot progression.

Avoiding some of the misguided notions of AI, Spielberg appears to have simplified the dramatic line in World of the Worlds, avoiding the parallel stories H.G. Wells depicted in the original 1898 novel, by combining the combining the main character and the brother plot lines into one carried by the Tom Cruise in the film. Rather than breaking the line of action between the main character in the book near the front lines of the action and his brother in London, Spielberg assigns the whole line of action to the Cruise character. Of course, having not seen the script, this is a risky assumption, except to note that the film lacks another predominant star that the brother's character would require. Since the same writer who co-wrote Jurassic Park is writing this script, we can expect the chase to be a prominent feature in this film as it was in Jurassic Park.

The geography of War of the Worlds poses some interesting challenges since Cruise and Fanning apparently being the film in a fictional version of the Iron Bound section of Newark (filmed partly in Bayonne), pass through swamp scenes filled with red weed (filmed in Howell), rush to the ferry (filmed in Athens) to eventually wind up on the approach to Boston (filmed on Staten Island). The trailer showing the exploding Bayonne Bridge shows from the start that Spielberg intends to use the spice of chase liberally through this movie as he did in Jurassic Park.

One reason why Spielberg's AI fails to captivate some viewers is because the film failed to fully exploit this one aspect that might have created a sense of drama the film's otherwise dismal pace lacked. But the chase in AI - as opposed to the remarkably creative chase in ET - is lame, badly paced and hurriedly set up.

ET for me represents the most fully developed chase scene because it is supported by well-developed scenes leading up to it - this despite the fact that ET like most Spielberg movies lack a progressive plot. While some critics have laid claim to ET as a classic case of Oedipal complex - which no mere pain killer can cure - Spielberg apparently has his own agenda, themes he is working out through image and feeling that do not correspond to the more predictable satisfaction of cause and effect. Yet at the heart of this complex of image-related connections and questions of parenting, environment assault, distrust of the adult world is the chase scene - an amazing sequence that has neighborhood kids frustrate the cruel ambitions of the adult world as these kids rescue the stranded alien child and help with its return to its own world.

Key to this great escape is the concept that bicycles can fly.

In this film, Spielberg manages to avoid one of the unfortunate side effects of his idea-based plotting, which has some lucky break or hand of god, saving our heroes such as in Raiders and to some extent Jurassic Park. Instead, Spielberg sets up the critical chase scene with an earlier more sentimental scene that appears at first to lack consequence, a character-building scene in which ET and the boy fly across the face of the moon in a bonding ritual. The scene is so sweet we later almost forget it when the action speeds up and the fleet of bicycles is nearly trapped by the adults bent on catching ET for their own purposes.

When the bicycles take off into the air - we do not suffer any of the surprises that AI threw at us - we simple say, "of course," because Spielberg took the time to careful set up the scene.

For all the later grandstanding, for all the symbolic creativity, for all the Christ-like resurrection imagery presented in the film ET, it is the chase that holds it all together and keeps the film from being too sentimental. By building the structure of the film around that chase scene, Spielberg avoids many of the lags AI made us suffer through, giving a satisfying structure to the film around which he can weave his other image-idea related scenery.

Spielberg menu

Main Menu

email to Al Sullivan