War of the Worlds
directed by Steven Spielberg
starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins
Terror. Makers of scary sci-fi films learned long ago that if one effectively presents a truly terrifying monster (or alien, shark, robot, mutated insect, etc.) to the moviegoing public, a film with a lack of decent acting, a good plot or even a passable script can still sell tickets.
Thankfully, Steven Spielberg knows a thing or two about passable scripts, and about terror.
While his version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds isn’t terrifying in a novel sense — there’s been a lot of copycats since Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast and the chilling 1953 film adaptation — Spielberg’s vision remains true to the spirit of the long-classic story about aliens hell-bent on cleansing planet Earth of pesky humans, a story that will scare the bejesus out of countless popcorn-munchers this summer. War of the Worlds fans will be rewarded; for the uninitiated, the movie somewhat resembles a frenetically-paced Signs, complete with the aliens that M. Night Shyamalan studiously avoided shining a spotlight upon.
Iconic, wacked-out starlet-magnet Tom Cruise stars as Ray Ferrier, a self-centered New Jersey divorcee who seems to have all but given up on his two kids, who live with his remarried ex-wife. Surprisingly, Ferrier is a very ordinary fellow — not a former Green Beret, firefighter or cop; he’s just a dockworker with a certain degree of common sense.
This minor attribute, together with a heightened instinct for self-preservation, comes in handy when all hell breaks loose in his waterfront neighborhood one tranquil, custodial weekend.
A viewer will quickly learn that Cruise is not the star of the show, not by a long shot. The true stars of War of the Worlds, as in its cinematic predecessor, are the towering, tentacled alien war-machines; to Spielberg’s credit, they waste no time in appearing in the film. While the family are asleep, a series of global storms and electrical device-killing surges of radiation sweep across the globe. When they reach the Atlantic seaboard, lightning strikes awaken these long-buried cyborgs, which turn initially curious bystanders into a wave of humanity running for their lives.
The crucial initial scenes set the pace of the film. War of the Worlds‘ now-stereotypically epic elements — often the stuff of Bruckheimer productions — have been darkly re-recreated by someone with an obvious appreciation for vintage sci-fi cinematography (Janusz Kaminski, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report). The yard-by-yard destruction of city blocks — from crashing buildings to uprooted pavement — will truly set viewers at the edge of their seats; with a foghorn-like blare preceding the carnage, the alien machines’ energy beams then vaporize the citizenry like a weed wacker prowling bone-dry grass.
Commandeering one of the few rolling vehicles in the tri-state area, Ferrier, with kids in tow, flee northward, running from the countless metallic creatures wells as from a monster of a more recognizable form — ugly mob hysteria. As in every movie of its kind, a human-drama sub-plot emerges as Ferrier attempts to communicate with his estranged, chip-on-the-shoulder son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious, wide-eyed daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, in another standout performance as her generation’s Drew Barrymore).
From a ferry disaster to a farmhouse cellar (where Tim Robbins makes a very creepy appearance as a psychotic fellow survivor), Cruise and Co. keep running and hiding — and when they cower in absolute terror, the audience will likewise shrink in their less-than-comfortable seats.
Ray Ferrier is undoubtedly the least unassuming, most low-key role of Cruise’s career. The clueless father starts out as anti-hero, and with a couple of exceptions, remains in character throughout War of the Worlds. Then again, in this tale of ominous doom, there are no heroes — just victims, lucky survivors and a bunch of truly scary villains.
Every sci-fi flick requires a certain level of suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy it; in this movie, Spielberg’s skill has made the monsters and mayhem quite believable, and one can almost overlook the unlikelihood of the human principals’ continuing existence. But War of the Worlds‘ final moments… well, if you head for doors right after the climactic scene, you’ll spare yourself some incredulous laughter and walk away satisfied, albeit a bit worn out from the experience.
War of the Worlds: waroftheworlds.com