Almost a century before Hollywood perfected the endless repackaging of its stories across multiple media, H.G. Wells created War of the Worlds, which freaked out audiences as a magazine series, a novel, a panic-inducing radio play, a movie, and ultimately a stage musical. And so, in the terrorism-edgy mid-’00s, Steven Spielberg resurrected War of the Worlds and created the greatest alien invasion movie ever.
The extraterrestrials of this War aren’t cuddly and benevolent like those of Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters. No sir, these beasts are the kind that march around planet Earth in gigantic three-legged machines, exterminating mankind with death rays and blood-sucking probes.
If it sounds campy, it’s not. Not one bit. This is dark, terrifying stuff, and Spielberg’s vision of how mankind deals with apocalypse has “9/11″ scrawled all over it in blood and ash.
In spite of the sweeping title, the movie limits itself to the world of Ray Ferrier, whom Tom Cruise plays with his typical wide-eyed abandon. Ray’s a divorced stevedore on the Jersey docks, living in a state of arrested development behind the freeway. Ray’s also quite the daredevil, and his extended adolescence has rendered him incapable of effectively parenting his teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious 11-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning), both of whom prefer their lives with their sensible mother and stepfather in McMansionville. And wouldn’t you know it, the aliens strike during the weekend when Ray’s got the kids.
The first 30 minutes of the movie stick to the vintage invasion picture formula — reports of strange phenomena from abroad, followed by weird stuff happening around our protagonists, followed by curiosity, then excitement, then blinding fear. While someone with only a cursory knowledge of Scientology might expect Cruise to get on his knees and reverently worship his new overlords, Ray doesn’t believe in much except what he hears on TV and sees with his own eyes. And when the tripod machines start vaporizing his neighbors and toppling freeways, he makes haste with the kids to find their mom.
Via some of Spielberg’s best camera work (shot by his regular cinematographer, Janusz Kamisky), we stick close to Ray as he tries to keep his family from becoming fertilizer. Ray knows nothing about where the invading creatures are from or what they aim to do besides kill humans, and thus neither do we. Jeff Goldblum’s thankfully not around to explain everything this time.
To that end, War of the Worlds is essentially an extended chase scene, and the massive-scale destruction — toppling cathedrals, smashed airliners, capsizing ferries — is some of the most awesome and convincing in memory. But Spielberg doesn’t revel in the damage; the death toll is horrifying, not thrilling. A note to parents: Don’t be fooled by the child actors and PG-13 rating. Bodies pile up; blood soaks the broken land. Fanning may look like young Drew Barrymore, but this is decidedly not kids’ stuff.
That said, the movie’s younger performers are both spectacular as the young Ferriers. The screenplay, penned by veteran blockbuster scribe David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Panic Room, Spider-Man) and relative newcomer Josh Friedman, is a cliché-free marvel of efficiency; in just one early scene between Ray and his ex-wife, you can understand the whole history of their relationship.
For all the off-screen attention attracted by Cruise and his outsize movie star persona, the superstar of this movie is Spielberg, who crafts high-pressure suspense and frantic escape sequences that may leave you short of breath. He masterfully conjures a fear that’s far more terrifying than what we humans are capable of inflicting upon ourselves. And that’s a feat for the ages.