The Spielberg film, while owing little to its source material, does something pretty effective with it – it transforms it into a film that pays homage both to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and a moving post-9/11 look at society.
The fear psychosis prevalent in society is sparked by the strange occurrences, leading to an initial suspicion of “The Terrorists”. Warning systems, designed for terrors of this world are rendered mute by other-wordly horrors. Panic-stricken mobs revert to their atavistic instincts. At least a few scenes pay direct homage to the all too real memories of that day not too long ago.
The film is told from the perspective of a common man, Ray, at odds with his son, a familiar motif in Spielberg films. The aliens, who have a strange taste for blood are towering and terrifying eminences that seek to exterminate humanity, yet true to one of the book’s central theses, are felled by earth germs, perhaps an anti-colonial commentary by Wells.
The aliens arrive replete with death-rays that can dissolve humans in a flash, consume human blood by the gallon, and seem to have little purpose other than to wreak havoc. Ray protects his daughter from them as much as he can, but she is exposed to the terrors surrounding her everywhere.
His son’s need to prove himself to his father is fulfilled when Ray sees Robbie reach out to save some terrified stragglers. Ray is torn himself by feeling of guilt at perhaps not having done enough for the family. Human volition is driven by a desire to discriminate reality from the arbitrary. In the film, when the arbitrary becomes common-place, it takes herculean effort by Ray to steer a course of normality and protection for his small family.
Although he succeeds, in one of the biggest let-downs of the film-maker’s art, the film has a Hollywood, or perhaps Bollywood ending – the hapless father and daughter are reunited with the son and his mother’s family in Boston, who step out looking like they just completed an evening of gin rummy, and muffins.
Other plot-holes abound, but one shall cast a benign eye towards them and solidly appreciate the creative fictions portrayed. Tom Cruise puts in a stellar performance, inhabiting his role like few others can. Tim Robbins provides a somewhat disconcerting depiction of a infantryman/ambulance driver who is determined to fight against the foul invaders, yet loses his head in a critical moment, pun unintended. Spielberg provides numerous heart-stopping moments, interspersed with bits of comic relief that seem welcome in the claustrophobic mayhem.
The film is less than stellar, yet a better summer blockbuster than many, and filled with inside jokes, social commentary, and tributes to earlier Spielberg films. Probably more suited to an R-rating than the current PG-13, and deserving an alternate ending on the DVD – say, with father and daughter clutching each other wearily amidst the swirling dust and ruins of Boston, with toppled alien tripods and cheering townsfolk. Hah – fat chance!