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"War of the Worlds" Movie Review

Spielberg Almost Succeeds in Creating the Perfect Alien Movie

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Justin Chatwin, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in "War of the Worlds."

© Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks LLC
If the world’s not tired of Tom Cruise, then “War of the Worlds” should do spectacular business at the box office. Cruise’s recent attention-grabbing engagement to Katie Holmes and his desire to talk about Scientology at every possible opportunity have turned a few people off. But will that stop the majority of moviegoers from checking out his latest collaboration with Steven Spielberg? Probably not. And that’s a darn good thing as “War of the Worlds” is immensely entertaining.

The impact of the tragic events of 9/11 and the lasting effect of those events on our collective psyche play heavily in Spielberg’s 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 aren’t, “Where did the aliens come from and what do they want?” No, the two kids in the film immediately believe it’s 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 character’s back story and then lets the invasion begin. We learn right away that Ray Ferrier (Cruise) isn’t 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 doesn’t 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 what’s simply implied as by what’s seen. We don’t see one of the movie’s biggest battles, yet we know exactly what’s 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 isn’t concerned with battling the aliens. He doesn’t care why they’re 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, it’s almost a certainty that Spielberg goes beyond what you’ve envisioned. The CGI’s blended seamlessly into scenes. Streets, cars, and huge buildings are destroyed by the aliens as they emerge from underground, and everything looks unbelievably realistic. There’s never a moment when you’re 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 wouldn’t 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 it’s 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 movie’s 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 doesn’t fit. In fact, the ending’s so out of place it almost ruins the whole experience. You’ve got to wonder if the ending that’s 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 Spielberg’s 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, I’ll give it a B.

"War of the Worlds" is rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images.

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