Sorely underrated on release, Steven Spielberg's dark, terrifying adaptation of the HG Wells classic novel may miss the essential point of the story in updating and relocating it, but maintains its primal power. Not all of it works; time and again, Spielberg's shoehorning in of strained family dynamics can get a bit tiresome (although, to be fair this was touched on in the novel). But, with suitably frayed lead performances from Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning as the estranged father and daughter on the run from Martian invaders, plus several gut-wrenching set pieces, it's certainly a cut above standard blockbuster fare, pushing summer movies into increasingly troubling, post-9/11 territory.
Musically, Spielberg continued his celebrated partnership with (who else?) John Williams. This classic composer-director hive mind of course has rewritten the rule book on several genres, namely sci-fi and fantasy, with Spielberg not only consistently drawing the best out of an extraordinary composer, but with a fundamental understanding of how music itself works in film. Yet it's certainly true that Williams' ventures into darkness have been few or far between, the most notable examples being Close Encounters and Minority Report. Subsequently, the relentlessly brutal and frightening nature of War of the Worlds is an invigorating jolt, Spielberg's increasingly adult directorial stance and the paranoia of David Koepp's screenplay taking the composer well out of his comfort zone.
Precisely because of this, Worlds is one of Williams' most impressive and riveting efforts in his recent oeuvre, the fiercely dark nature of the score painting a nightmare in the listener's head. Of course, Williams being who he is, it's inaccurate to describe it as a monotonal score; although there are (refreshingly) no recognisable themes to speak of, the interest lies in the shifting textures and motifs of the music, leading us carefully from terror to excitement to despair and, sometimes, austere beauty. It's a chilling yet elegiac musical portrait of mankind on the brink, although it starts unobtrusively, with the Morgan Freeman narrated "Prologue" introducing unnerving electronic and chime effects, building to a discordant crescendo.
"Attack on the Ferry" which follows is sensational, a perfect example of the rhythmic Williams action style but firmly in the uncompromising Jurassic Park/Minority Report mould, always surging forward, building on layer upon layer of orchestra, synths, subtle choir and thunderous ostinatos. The thrilling "Escape From the City" and the slightly more florid "Attack on the Car" are further highlights. "Reaching the Country" calms things down considerably, building a heart-wrenching lament for full orchestra and electronic choir; several other pieces ("Ray and Rachel"/"Refugee Status"/"Separation of the Family") continue in a similar vein, building a palpably humane portrait in the face of overwhelming danger.
That the quieter sections stand out as well as they do is a firm testament to Williams' talent, because the horrific moments are often jaw-droppingly threatening, showcasing an untapped side to the composer. "The Intersection Scene" and "Probing the Basement" are skin-crawlingly creepy, the former bringing back fond memories of Jaws in its chopping, syncopated strings (complete with eerie processed breathing effects) and the latter likely the scariest piece on the album, dissonant rumbling and harsh glissandi sounding like something out of a slasher film. Also notable in Worlds is Williams' commitment to large sections of electronic, experimental sound ("The Confrontation with Ogilvy"/"Escape From the Basket"), something he hasn't tried in such depth very often before but entirely appropriate to the contemporary sci-fi context of the film.
"The Return to Boston" is possibly the only major concession to Williams' more patriotic sound of old, a rousing anthemic snare drum/trumpet rhythm as the invaders fall, but it doesn't last. "The Reunion" returns us to a cathartic sense of relief at the album's close, although tempered with a palpable sense of melancholy and maturity stemming from both Williams' recent developments as a musician and the refusal to stoop to a sappy climax in the film itself. Hence the conclusive "Epilogue" doesn't finish in his usual triumphant vein but instead pierces to the heart of Wells' prose, the lonely, cold brass sounding a sombre warning to mankind of the perils of colonialism and its place on the interstellar food chain.
It's a masterstroke of incisive scoring, the same of which could be said about the entire score, one which sees Williams really push the boat out and commit fully to an uncompromising, brutal sound. It really does show what an excellent musician he is even when stripped of his signature themes and bounciness; for neither do men, nor Williams' score, live, nor die, in vain. This soundtrack is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com