There is a litany of inevitables in Steven Spielberg’s version of WAR OF THE WORLDS. There’s humanity turning on itself in a desperate scramble for survival. There are the vistas of CGI presenting hordes of extra-terrestrial killing machines cutting a swath across cities, suburbs and points rural. There are the seething tensions between an emotionally absent father and his adolescent son that play out against the backdrop of the end of life as we know it. It takes all of five minutes to set it up and another ten for the fun to begin. Spielberg doesn’t believe in wasting any time with profound meditations on any of the above, this is strictly an exercise in big-budget adventure and if we don’t expect anything more of it, we won’t be too disappointed.
It may begin and end with Morgan Freeman intoning the first and last paragraphs of the H.G. Wells novella, but this is as loose an adaptation possible that can still be traced to the original source material. No scientists here. Our hero is Ray (Tom Cruise), a feckless blue-collar guy with a dicey relationship with his two kids, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and an even dicier one with his pregnant ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her very white-collar second husband. Perhaps it’s the way he uses the kitchen to rebuild engines instead of cooking, or it might be that narcissistic Peter Pan syndrome that messed up his domestic life to begin with. A few short hours after taking custody of the kids for the weekend, during which Robbie steals his car and a sulky Rachel orders out, ominous things start to happen. Peculiar storms in the sky spew lightning that doesn’t obey the rule about not striking twice in the same place, and a surge of electromagnetic energy takes out pretty much everything electrical in the neighborhood. It’s happened other places, like Ukraine, but no one much notices, much less cares until it’s their car that won’t start. And then machines start erupting from deep, deep in the ground, machines that tower a dozen stories in the air, They immediately start wiping out every human being they find with light beams that reduce bodies to dust (Buffy fans will not be able to think of it as anything but being dusted), leaving their clothes to waft lazily in the air as they slowly return to earth. Spielberg, always good with an image, has a veritable gale of them at one point. And Ray, who escapes from the first wave of attacks returns home covered in one victim only to be rendered mute when Rachel asks him how he got so dusty.
The true tension in the film comes not from the relentless attack on humanity, extermination as Ogivly, the crazy man in the basement (a smoothly unhinged Tim Robbins) puts it, but rather from Ray’s equally relentless attempts to shield Rachel’s eyes from the horror of what is happening. It’s a futile task, of course, but it speaks to that basic, primal, compulsion of any sentient species to protect its young and give them a future, even a putative one. It’s what underlies the most disturbing sequence in the film, when an alien eye snakes through the basement where survivors, desperately silent, are forced into a desperately silent game of hide and seek and Ray has to keep Ogilvy from taking a hatchet to it and then has to take even more drastic measures after carefully tying a blindfold on Rachel to keep the details from her.
It works because of Fanning, a child of sophisticated acting skills, meaning that she can sell the terror, but she can also sell being an actual kid. It’s the way her character, even in the midst of unthinkable devastation, can look at Ray in that particular, condescending way that children do when their elders have proven themselves to have feet of clay, or in this case, failed to register that she has been allergic to peanut butter since birth. It’s not precocious, it’s authentic. Cruise, for his part, is trying hard and the effort shows, but not in a good way.
WAR OF THE WORLDS has the feel of a slightly better than B-grade monster flick from the 1950s, from the art direction of the monster machines to that genre’s typical paranoia, Cold War fear of Communism here replaced with a timid slam at mob rule and the attendant attraction felt by it for the order of fascism. There are a few gaffes, small ones such as a camcorder that works when all the other appliances and toys are out, and big ones, like it taking the end of the world for Ray to step up and be a responsible father. Mostly, though, it’s a roller-coaster of special effects as Ray and his family escape from ever more hair-raising dangers in ever more improbable, but oddly fun ways. And while this version will never be the equal of what H.G. Wells put into his novella, or for that matter, what Orson Welles engineered into that infamous radio broadcast that shook the nation, it’s eye-popping to watch, maintains a breathless pace and even has one or two tricks up its sleeve.