War of the Worlds has fascinated us for more than 100 years. Set initially in Victorian England, H.G. Wells' 1898 novel chronicles the landing of Martians and their swift takeover of the world in giant "tripods." Some credit this book as the beginning of science fiction. Forty years later, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre performed an unusual and updated Halloween interpretation, retooled as a radio news broadcast. Even though there were numerous disclaimers within the program, there were pockets of hysteria across the country. (My grandmother fondly recalled hearing this as a girl. She wasn't fooled.) In 1953, Hollywood offered another update, this time with the atom bomb as the preferred weapon against the enemy.
There's an interesting pattern to this history. Each update of the story emerges from the specter of social disaster. In 1938, it was the threat of World War II. In 1953, it was a response to nuclear paranoia and the Cold War. Now it is terrorism.
Anyhoo ... Ray is a bad single dad. His stately ex-wife drops the kids off at his messy New Jersey home for the weekend, and Ray is reminded, yet again, of how disconnected he is from their lives. Son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is a rebellious teen, and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is precocious and well-spoken, if phobic. But family divisions are easily forgotten (temporarily) when aliens are attacking, and it's not long before the arrival of intergalactic evildoers interrupts domestic squabbles everywhere. Instead, though, of arriving from another planet, they're already here - deposited millions of years ago for an eventual uprising. They are horrible: giant three-legged metal monsters that zap with death rays and suck blood out of people. Ray and family essentially spend the film running until the final showdown, which, if you have read the book or seen the '53 film, you know does not involve humans.
In the wake of 9/11, director Steven Spielberg has broken his pledge to never direct a film with bad aliens in them. The truth is that things that are alien to us are just as likely to be as bad as we are ourselves. Our panic and our response to terror must be examined. And so it is in this slick and satisfying remake. The destruction of the world looks quite real, and the aliens and their vessels look quite alien - retro, almost, which is fitting in a film that is the third remake of a science-fiction story (fourth, if you include the late-1980s TV series which was bad but awesome). By taking an almost exclusive Cruise-centric point of view, the film becomes very personal, and we can see our own responses and choices within his. And it's not all running from aliens. The scene where Ray realizes he doesn't know any of his daughter's favorite lullabies is more devastating than the several human-vaporizations that preceded it. Likewise, when we first see the aliens, they are meticulously poring through a family photo collection. Creeeeeepy! And yet strangely real. They're so careful with the photos. Weird. Alien.
Neither as grand in scope as it could be (what? no appearance by the president?) nor as suspenseful as it wants to be (Spielberg's 1975 Jaws had the good sense to wait a full hour before showing us the shark), War of the Worlds still succeeds as the kind of social catharsis that can only be achieved by watching the world end. As with 1994's Jurassic Park, you can tell that Spielberg sped this through production, but he shows here that he's better at speeding than he was then. His touches are everywhere, and his sentimentality is used as sparingly as John Williams' restrained and alarming score (whose sounds are sometimes indistinguishable from alien noises). Cruise, likewise, succeeds with the less-is-more approach. Seems like his apocalyptic personal life could take a few notes from the notion of subtlety and restraint. n - Bo List