The impact of the tragic events of 9/11 and the lasting effect of those events on our collective psyche play heavily in Spielbergs version of H.G. Wells classic sci-fi story. When the world turns upside down and Americans are running for their lives from an unknown enemy, the first questions asked arent, Where did the aliens come from and what do they want? No, the two kids in the film immediately believe its terrorists attacking our country once again. Spielberg effectively wraps Wells 100+ year old story in carefully constructed layers that reflect the paranoia, anger and fear of our times.
Spielberg wastes no time getting into the good stuff. He quickly lays out the main characters back story and then lets the invasion begin. We learn right away that Ray Ferrier (Cruise) isnt close with his kids, that his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) would rather be anywhere than spending the weekend with their neglectful dad. Right after spelling that out in very obvious ways, Spielberg lets loose with 60 minutes of non-stop, white-knuckle-inducing terror. Yes, terror. Spielberg gets all good and nasty with War of the Worlds, never letting up when the opportunity arises to show someone being killed by the aliens in their death machines. The attacks are brutal, the lasers fired at the panicking townspeople cause them to burst into dust and drift on the wind, settling on the other fleeing targets still running for their lives.
Yet Spielberg doesnt always show you what you expect to see. He leads you to the very edge of the precipice, teasing battles going on just beyond your line of sight and building the suspense as much by whats simply implied as by whats seen. We dont see one of the movies biggest battles, yet we know exactly whats going on through the characters reactions. Brilliant.
At the heart of the film is the story of a dad forced to reconnect with his children and to do everything in his power to save them. Ray isnt concerned with battling the aliens. He doesnt care why theyre here or where they came from. After the aliens invade, Ray really sees his kids maybe for the first time in years. He turns from viewing them as a necessary intrusion in his life to people who mean everything to him. This little family drama has played out in many ways before, and it just so happens that in this telling of the story, the catalyst forcing a change of heart and a reordering of priorities is an invasion of aliens.
However high your expectations are as far as the effects in the film and the look, movement, and actions of the aliens, its almost a certainty that Spielberg goes beyond what youve envisioned. The CGIs blended seamlessly into scenes. Streets, cars, and huge buildings are destroyed by the aliens as they emerge from underground, and everything looks unbelievably realistic. Theres never a moment when youre jolted out of the movie by the special effects.
And the aliens The man behind E.T. brings us the creepiest-looking aliens to date. Poor ET wouldnt be able to steady his fingers to dial home after taking a look at these disturbing creatures.
As for the acting, Cruise, Fanning and Chatwin are perfect. Cruise shows a lot of range (more so than usual) playing a jerk who figures things out before its too late for his relationship with his kids to be salvaged. Fanning and Chatwin are believable as siblings and neither actor lets Cruise take over their scenes. The threesome Cruise, Fanning, and Chatwin are all strong and play well off of each other.
War of the Worlds is a terrific film for the first 100 or so minutes. Unfortunately the movies 117 minutes long and those last 17 minutes are just plain horrible. Spielberg delivers a dark, sinister sci-fi story and then screws the whole thing up with an ending that doesnt fit. In fact, the endings so out of place it almost ruins the whole experience. Youve got to wonder if the ending thats included in the theatrical release is the only ending that was shot. It actually feels like an alternate ending that was tacked on when a test audience vetoed what Spielberg really wanted to show us. If this was in fact Spielbergs first and only choice for the ending, then jeers for not sticking with the tone of the film through its entirety.
GRADE: A for the first 100 minutes, D for the last 17 or so. Overall, Ill give it a B.
"War of the Worlds" is rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images.