Retrospect Reviews: ‘War of the Worlds and “Last Samurai’

Tom Cruise has been a major actor in Hollywood for a while, but as a 90s kid, I didn’t start seeing his movies regularly until the mid-2000s.

Perhaps his best work during that period was his performance as the cold, calculating hitman in 2004’s “Collateral.” That period also saw him appear in “Mission: Impossible III,” a movie credited with rejuvenating the franchise.

Two films from that era that I remember most fondly, though, are his Japanese period piece “The Last Samurai” and the “War of the Worlds” remake. Both films have received mixed reception, but I found them to be strong pictures.

Now that Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” has come out, it seems like a good time to write about both films.

The Last Samurai, 2003

I won’t lie, I came into this one with skepticism. A movie about the so called last samurai and its main star is Tom Cruise?

Then I watched it, and I was engrossed from start to finish. It’s a captivating war drama with superb acting, harrowing set-pieces and exceptional craftsmanship.

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The film has beautiful shots, and features carefully designed sets and costumes. There’s a lot of working in the movie’s favor.

Understandably, it does have some issues, the biggest being its lead actor. The movie does go into the territory of the “white savior” trope. Additionally, the film’s historical accuracy is reportedly questionable at best.

However, “The Last Samurai” is a film that is able to overcome these issues.
At its core, the movie is about the connection of two soldiers from different philosophies who form a bond. Cruise’s Nathan Algren character is a tormented warrior without a cause or a reason for living

Ken Watanabe’s Katsumoto, meanwhile, is a warrior with a cause, having something to fight for, but lacks perspective on a changing world. As the two come to understand each other, Nathan gains a reason to keep living while Katsumoto comes to better understand how the world is evolving.

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Each respective character offers something compelling and their relationship of learning about each other is captivating. In the end, it’s the connection of these characters’ two journeys that leads the emperor to want Japanese history and culture to be maintained even as the country modernizes.

It is a beautiful story told very well on screen.

War of the Worlds, 2005

Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” adaptation is definitely not the most loved sci-fi movie out there. The film holds a 71% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is not terrible, but not great either.

From my perspective, it’s a phenomenal family drama with the backdrop of a horrifying alien invasion. It’s like an elevated Roland Emmerich project.

It’s a gripping film and feels all to realistic. When disaster strikes, there’s often a period where people are just trying to survive, and can only get bits and pieces of information.

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That’s what “War of the Worlds” is like. There’s no discovery of where the aliens came from, nor is there a segment with the president talking to the generals. It’s simply one father trying to protect his kids, with the martian threat always looming while society collapses.

It’s a very realistic and frightening take on the alien invasion genre. Whenever the infamous tripods show up, it’s freaky, especially since they always seem to be around the corner, keeping the main characters on the run.

Cruise is great in the film. His character is a deadbeat dad who hasn’t done much right in life, but he’s also a survivor and a fighter. Watching him push forward to protect his two children, and make up for past mistakes with his clear resolve, is engaging.

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It helps that Spielberg brings his A-game in the entertainment section. The tripods look great, and the action moments are thrilling. The horns announcing their presence can raise the hair on a person’s neck and moments where the aliens send small probes down to search for survivors is suspenseful.

The ending might seem a little hokey. But it works for what the film had been showing. “War of the Worlds” is about humanity, both the best and worst of it.

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The audience sees a lot of bad, such as the moment where the family’s van is carjacked. However, it shows good too, like when the people work together to pull Cruise’s character out of the tripod, which leads to its destruction It’s also displayed in Cruise’s love for his children.

It’s the best of humanity that has allowed us to progress, and in that progress, humans have been able to adapt to this planet. It’s something that the aliens couldn’t do. It’s a romanticized idea of how microbes work, obviously, but it seemed fitting in this flick.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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