Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, Amy Ryan, Morgan Freeman (narrator)
Written by: David Koepp and Josh Friedman, based on the novel by H.G. Wells
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 118
Date: 06/13/2005

War of the Worlds (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Worlds' Is Nearly Enough

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Steven Spielberg's unofficial trilogy Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, kindly, curious aliens visit earth and gently explore our mysterious ways.

That happens once, briefly, in Spielberg's new film War of the Worlds, but mostly these new aliens wish to evaporate us, smash us open like pomegranates and lay down roots.

Based on H.G. Wells' classic 1898 novel, and probably bits of Orson Welles' notorious 1938 radio broadcast and George Pal and Byron Haskin's 1953 film, Spielberg has chosen to forgo any of the scientific exposition or media hyperbole around the alien invasion and focus exclusively on the people on the ground, specifically divorced dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise).

It's Ray's turn to watch his kids, teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and younger Rachel (Dakota Fanning), for the weekend. (Miranda Otto appears in a thankless role as the mom.) In a few deftly maneuvered sequences, we learn all about the practically non-existent relationships between Ray and his kids.

Most of Spielberg's films from 1989 on deal with fatherhood in some way, and War of the Worlds tackles it deeper than ever before. Following the attack, the entire film basically consists of Ray breathlessly trying to transport his children from New York to Boston (back to their mother) without getting killed by the aliens; it's the ultimate paternity test.

The aliens, meanwhile, appear miles above the horizon, stalking around on three spidery stalks and blowing up everything that can possibly be blown up. At other times, they appear as sensor tentacles, poking in the cracks for errant humans; these tense sequences resemble the superb "spider" scene in Minority Report, but are not quite as crafty or mischievous.

Spielberg calls upon his entire bag of tricks for War of the Worlds, and fans may notice visual cues to Jaws, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, among others. Still, he's in absolute visual, physical command of this material, presenting the complete chaos and destruction with frightening clarity, putting us smack in the eye of the storm.

As with Jaws and his other fright films, he dishes out and raises the suspense to an almost intolerable level before giving us a rest. Unfortunately, the rest periods allow time to contemplate the updated story's spongy logic, such as the fact that the ships have been buried under our soil for a million years, waiting for some arbitrary attack time.

Ultimately, War of the Worlds is yet another exercise of style over substance. Whatever questions Wells dealt with have faded. Early on, characters bring up "terrorists" as a possibility for the attack, but the movie doesn't much care about the ramifications of real-life fear. However, it has movie fear down.

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