This time the ‘War’ gets personal
There are bound to be detractors of Steven Spielberg’s latest science fiction epic “War of the Worlds.” After all, Spielberg is a pioneer in so many genres of film that it’s understandable that his fans expect something extraordinary from him every time out.
From his first major film, the heart-pounding “Duel” (1971), to its follow-up, the preeminent terror-inducing “Jaws,” (1975) it was clear Spielberg had a knack for keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. While “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” illustrated his passion for alien interaction, “War of the Worlds” marks an interesting conversion of these two fields where Spielberg has no peer. Maybe we should call it Science Friction?
As for riveting, nail-biting suspense, “War of the Worlds” wastes little time in getting to the pulse-quickening plot. Based on H.G. Wells’ original novel from 1898 which was adapted for the now infamous radio broadcast in 1938, the otherworldly invasion is updated by screenwriters Josh Freidman and David Koepp.
Tom Cruise stars as Ray Ferrier, an average Joe, a dockworker living in New Jersey, a decent schlub who tinkers with transmissions he keeps in the living room of his unkempt bachelor pad. Who knows if that’s why his wife (Miranda Otto) left him, but it’s clear he leaves a lot to be desired in the fatherhood department.
Casting the credible and always affable Cruise here is a challenging but ultimately wise choice. The temptation will be to assume that as Ferrier, Cruise will be the save-the-world hero by outsmarting the aliens. This stereotype is actually inaccurate, considering Cruise’s most recent films. In “Collateral,” “The Last Samurai,” “Magnolia,” and even “Minority Report,” he is often at best a flawed and sometimes even wicked character.
Instead, Spielberg puts Ferrier and his kids, 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning — probably the best child actress working today) and 16-year-old brother Robbie (Justin Chatwin) in a series of narrow escape-and-flee sequences. Massive tripods from another world begin their systematic (and unexplained) annihilation of earth’s inhabitants.
The visceral power of “War of the Worlds” is undeniable, and several scenes induce a “never-seen-that-before” reaction — some of them even surface in the film’s quieter moments, where Spielberg can frame stark despair like few others.
The film’s rather abrupt and perplexing conclusion, and some of the film’s unexplained motivations are more a commentary on Spielberg not wanting to stray too much from Wells’ original story. Most audiences will either loath or love the plot turn that involves Tim Robbins as a rather creepy, screw-loose survivalist type. The only complaint here is that the scenes in these basement confines go on too long and invoke distracting similarities to “Minority Report,” “The Abyss” and even “Signs.”
And speaking of “Signs,” and it’s director M. Night Shamylan, “War of the Worlds” would benefit from one of his patented surprise explanations for all the mayhem, but the screenwriters were either not up to the task or simply wanted to stay true to the nearly 100-year-old text.
“War of the Worlds” displays Spielberg’s talent and delivers what we want in this type of movie: An exhausting ride for all the senses — except, at times, the common one. The mighty director thrusting a family into the middle of his apocalyptic reality is not for the young or for the faint of heart.
Rated PG-13 for violence and frightening images.