After introducing the world to the ugly-cute aliens of Close Encounters and E.T., director Steven Spielberg vowed never to create a film with evil space invaders. But in the wake of 9-11 (and a host of crappy alien films like Signs), Spielberg decided it was time to give the world a dose of scary spacemen. Surprisingly, he turned not to his legendary long-unfilmed “Hopkinsville Goblins” project (based on the “true story” of a Kansas farmhouse besieged by nasty green men from space), but to the classic work of British sci-fi writer H.G. Wells.
Drafting Tom Cruise into the fold, Spielberg quickly (and very quietly) filmed an epic adaptation of Wells' infamous cautionary tale, War of the Worlds. The result is the director's first all-out horror film since Jaws put him on the map some 30 years ago.
Wells' timeless tale has been updated from postcolonial England to post-9-11 America. The script comes courtesy of David Koepp, who's practiced this sort of E-ticket paranoia before with Jurassic Park, The Trigger Effect and Panic Room. The story this time around remains faithful in spirit to Wells' original, but borrows equal amounts from the indelible 1953 film version. Wells' novel revolved around a more-or-less anonymous narrator wandering around Victorian London chronicling the assorted atrocities that the war machines of Martian invaders had wrought.
Spielberg begins with a nifty bit of narration borrowed wholesale from Wells (and delivered courtesy of wise old narrator standby, Morgan Freeman). From there, the film introduces us to its main character Ray Ferrier, a deadbeat New Jersey dad played by Tom Cruise. It's Ray's weekend to look after his kids (played by little Dakota Fanning and surly Justin Chatwin). Unfortunately, Ray has picked the mother of all bad weekends.
Within hours of taking his offspring back to his crummy postdivorce house, a series of freak electrical storms covers the globe. In short order, gigantic alien tripods are rising up out of the ground and reducing crowds of humans to fluttering ash.
This is a disaster movie writ big. Spielberg taps into our post-9-11 fear of attack with knee-knocking results. The alien machines are terrifying constructions, crushing houses and cars under their feet and emitting foghorn-like groans that are enough to rattle the popcorn in the movie theater lobby. Immediately, the film captures a feeling of utter hopelessness. There's simply nothing we feeble humans can do against these unstoppable foes. Except run. The film retains only the simplest of narratives. Our hero basically makes a mad dash across the Eastern seaboard, hoping to keep his kids alive. Along the way, he witnesses much chaos, a horrifying ferry ride and an encounter in a crumbling basement that counts among the film's most tense.
There are those in the audience who will feel the slim storyline cheats them out of some greater narrative complexity. But most people will be happy to ogle the $120 million worth of special effects (all there on screen, no doubt) and emit the occasional scream.
If you can put his recent talk show antics and wacky Scientology proselytizing aside, Cruise does a decent enough job as the irresponsible but loving father. Few of the roles here require much dialogue, and a great deal must be expressed through action. Aside from a highly effective cameo by Tim Robbins, Spielberg eschews the star-studded cast that normally populates such big-budget disaster films.
Spielberg pulls few punches here, and the film's unrelentingly grim atmosphere is certainly far too intense for young children. But, as a tension-filled disaster flick, War of the Worlds is a jaw-dropping spectacle.
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