“Take care of our kids,” Mary Ann Ferrier says, somewhat warily, to ex-husband Ray as she drops them off before heading up to Boston for a visit with her folks.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” Ray responds.
Well… yes, she does. As does he. And, apparently, all of us on Planet Earth, as an alien invasion of unimaginable, seemingly unstoppable proportions is about to be launched.
It starts with a lightning storm, but soon evolves into something far more devastating, as mammoth alien tripods buried beneath the earth’s surface emerge, giving everything in their path a good, solid scorching. As a petrified Ray (Tom Cruise) scrambles to get his teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) out of harm’s way, both kids ask, “Is it the terrorists?”
Tom Cruise in ‘War of the Worlds’
So begins War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg’s gripping, heart-stopping adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic. Spielberg’s version — which references everything from the George Pal 1953 version to the director’s own canon of thrillers, particularly Jaws and Jurassic Park — adheres to the basic Wells framework. Spielberg beefs up the beginning and midsection, but stays true to the finale, meaning that War of the Worlds may disappoint those looking for a huge, no-holds-barred climax.
But Spielberg’s acknowledgement of the lasting genius of Wells’ solution to invading extraterrestrials is admirable. He resists the urge to make the film bigger than it needs to be. (The director doesn’t, however, resist his tendency for sugar-sap finales, including what might be called “The E.T. Lazarus Syndrome,” an inability for any primary character presumed dead to remain dead.)
Spielberg treats the bigger moments in War of the Worlds as though he were fashioning a disaster film. The scenes of devastation pack an intense, mind-boggling punch. But the movie’s most truly suspenseful sequences are surprisingly small-scale and intimate: a ghastly moment set on a tranquil riverbed, a too-close-for-comfort encounter in a root cellar with the invaders, and the startling revelation behind what fertilizes the strange red vines suddenly encompassing our planet’s landscape. Spielberg taps into his inner-Hitchcock in these moments and the results are chilling.
Spielberg has always been one of our finest action directors, and the economy with which he stages even his huge moments — including a stunning, panic-fueled sequence on a ferry boat — produces a concise, uncluttered roadmap for the audience. The director ensures we never lose our way even when the action is at its most chaotic. (Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan could use a few pointers.)
One of Spielberg’s best moves is to focus the story on Ray, a self-absorbed, childish lout whose dormant, protective-paternal instincts kick in when faced with a dire situation. How far will Ray go to save his kids? The ultimate answer to this question occurs behind a closed door: it’s a morally queasy moment, but one that makes perfect sense.
Those hoping for a big Independence Day-like blowout will almost certainly to be disappointed. But those looking for a richer experience, one that features compelling, honest performances from Cruise, Chatwin and, especially, Fanning, as well as a metaphorically-enriched vision of the kind of damage terrorists from beyond the stars could inflict, will be more than satisfied.
Just as Jaws made us fear the water, War of the Worlds makes us wary of the weather. You’ll never again look at lightning in quite the same way.