In updating H.G. Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds into modern-day America, Steven Spielberg and screenwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman conjure up an alien invasion that reverberates with the horrific sights and sounds of 9/11.
That isn’t to say this latest War of the Worlds aspires to some sort of Big Message. No, this is Spielberg at his most commercial, a big, buttery, popcorn-fed creature packed with enough thrills to satisfy a Knievel family reunion. Even so, Wells’ 1898 masterpiece of science fiction has always been remarkably malleable for exploiting the fears of generations. As a staunch socialist and critic of the British colonialism of his time, Wells challenged his country’s zest for occupation by imagining that Britain itself endures a Martian reckoning day. In 1938, Orson Welles’ infamous radio version seemed all too real in a world witnessing the beginnings of Hitler’s quest for European domination. Fifteen years later, Hollywood revisited the Wells novel in the midst of Cold War anxiety.
So it’s only fitting that this War of the Worlds is thick with familiar imagery. In the wake of the movie’s alien invasion, buildings come crashing to the ground while bridges snap like toothpicks. An airliner slams into a suburban neighborhood. As the death toll rises, clothes come wafting down from the heavens. Desperate families search for missing loved ones by plastering handbills along the sides of buildings. The survivors of the attacks stumble about in a daze, covered head to foot in a gray ashen soot.
While that might sound a bit too close to reality — particularly in light of another major terrorist strike — Spielberg is less interested in parable than he is in purely whiz-bang filmmaking.
Tom Cruise takes time out from pistol-whipping postpartum moms to star as Ray Ferrier, a divorced New Jersey dockworker who apparently went to the Spielberg school of problematic fathers. Ray’s ex-wife drops off their kids, 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin), for the weekend so that she and her current husband can travel to Boston, but Ray is hardly the prepared poppa. His kitchen boasts more car parts than it does food, and the immature Ray barely knows what to talk about to his distant children.
Then the aliens arrive — or, more accurately, they emerge. A freak electrical storm serves as a prelude to the invasion. The creatures pop up from the earth below, piloting long-buried fighting machines that stomp around on three legs and shoot death rays that vaporize victims within seconds (another chilling throwback to the World Trade Center tragedy). Shot for shot, the initial appearance of the itching-for-a-fight spacemen nearly rivals the intensity of Saving Private Ryan‘s storming of Omaha Beach.
Throughout War of the Worlds, Spielberg revels in cinema’s possibilities with the same zeal that D.W. Griffith must have relished transporting audiences to ancient Babylon in Intolerance. When the Ferriers flee Jersey in one of the few functioning SUVs, the camera whips around — and then in and out of — the vehicle in a dazzling single take. In one edge-of-the-seat scene, an alien probe checks out a dank basement where the Ferriers are hiding while Ray struggles with another survivor, a half-out-of-his-mind fella named Ogilvy (portrayed by Tim Robbins). In a jaw-dropping orchestration of F/X, seat-shaking sound effects and virtuoso camerawork, Spielberg keeps the narrative at a fever pitch. And he wisely makes sure that we see the alien takeover through the eyes of the Ferrier family, rarely moving his camera away from ground level.
The guy has still got it.