Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: H.G. Wells (novel)
Josh Friedman and David Koepp (screenplay)
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, and Tim Robbins

Steven Spielberg knows a thing or two about alien invasions. First, they came to abduct and study us in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Oh sure, in the end they were friendly music lovers, but who can forget the frightening sequence where the unseen visitors lay siege to little Gary’s house and take him away? I was eight at the time, and it scared the hell out of me. Next, in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the aliens came into our homes and went after the hearts and minds of our children. Okay…I’m reaching there. There was nothing malevolent about E.T. The same can’t be said for Spielberg’s latest visitors, however. Based on the 1898 H.G. Wells’ classic novel of the same name, War of the Worlds depicts huge alien machines that move across the landscape and destroy all human life they encounter. And what a gloriously terrifying depiction it is!

Tom Cruise is Ray Ferrier, a dock worker from New Jersey who left his wife after the birth of their daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). This is his weekend with the kids and Rachel and his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) are less than thrilled. It is clear early on that Ray is clueless about his children’s lives and needs. The only thing he’s ever cared about is himself. But that’s all about to change.

Newscasts from around the globe announce that freak lightning storms are causing power outages and loss of signals. Bored, Rachel turns the channel to Spongebob. Then lightning strikes behind their house—energizing an alien war machine that rises from the earth and begins attacking everything in sight, and the film follows the exodus of Ray and his children as their world is destroyed around them. While on the run, Ray must learn to become a father, and the film poses some fascinating moral questions: What would you do to survive? How far would you go to protect your children?

The screenplay remains faithful to its source material. Morgan Freeman provides opening and closing narration lifted directly from Wells’ prose, and the attacking machines are the three-legged tripods of the novel. The invaders begin to spread a red weed that chokes all earthly vegetation and spreads like Kudzu over buildings and stalled vehicles. These aliens feed this plant by sucking the blood from fleeing humans and sprinkling it onto the landscape—a sequence that is ripe with stomach-churning horror as the wind carries some of the spray into Ray’s face.

Just as the ‘50s War of the Worlds played on Cold War fears, this new War deals with the post 9/11 world we live in. These war machines do not streak to Earth in meteors. No, they come up from within the earth—right under our feet the entire time. Like terrorist sleeper cells, they are activated on command to begin the destruction of America. As one character comments, “They’ve been planning this for years.” In one haunting scene, the clothing and ash of pulverized Americans fall like rain. As Ray becomes covered with this ash and walks through the streets, the likeness he bears to survivors of the twin towers is truly disturbing.

Spielberg keeps the action moving. In one brilliant sequence, his camera moves in and around Ray’s fleeing mini-van. We see the family in close-up as they speak, then pull back to get an overall view of the devastation, then it’s right back into the van for more dialogue. Later, when the aliens send a remote camera—a huge eye—into the cellar where Ray and Rachel have found shelter, the camera follows the machine as it snakes its way through the labyrinth, then whirls back to show the family moving out of its line of sight.

The director also knows when to let his camera linger. When a stranger (Tim Robbins) who has been driven mad by his experiences threatens Rachel’s safety, Ray feels he has no choice but to remove this danger. Ray blindfolds his daughter and asks her to sing her favorite lullaby as he goes off to silence the babbling man. The camera stays on her face, allowing us to hear her crackling voice and the faint noises of struggle in the distance. It is a gut-wrenching sequence.

In a film of cold technology and spectacular vistas of destruction, Cruise and Fanning manage to keep things very human indeed. Despite her young age, Fanning has proven to be one of the finest actresses in Hollywood, even upstaging the great Robert DeNiro in the recent Hide and Seek. Here, she compliments Cruise’s performance rather than distracting from it. Ray’s transformation from uncaring man-child to protector is made believable by Rachel’s transformation from too-wise child to little girl lost. One would not work without the other.

Some may find fault in Spielberg’s choice to portray the end of the world through Ray’s eyes (as in the movie Signs, if the main characters don’t see what’s happening, we don’t experience it either), but I’m not one of them. This War of the Worlds owes more to the director’s Saving Private Ryan than his earlier science fiction efforts. This is gritty, bleak, shocking, and real…until the very end. I’m not referring to the fate of the aliens. If you’ve read H.G. Wells’ novel, heard Orson Wells’ radio play, or seen the ‘50s film, you know what happens to them. I’m talking about the fate of Ray’s family. I won’t give anything away here, but let’s just say that Spielberg nearly ruined the entire film with a sappy, totally implausible “Hollywood” ending. The rest of the film is so uncompromisingly grim, however, that I am willing to forgive this hokum.

This is the second collaboration of Spielberg and Cruise. Their previous effort, Minority Report, was my favorite film of 2002. I will look forward to more outings with this dynamic duo. I only hope they don’t go “Hollywood” on us again.

4 out of 5 stars