Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel is, in its own way, a model of the form, and a worthy successor to both Orson Welles’ panic-inducing 1939 radio broadcast and George Pal and Byron Haskin’s beloved 1953 Technicolor eye-candy version. Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced, New York City metalworker who finds himself saddled one weekend with not only his two kids, Robbie (Chatwin) and Rachel (Fanning), but also with the imminent destruction of mankind via alien invasion. For poor Ray, it’s going to be one of those
weekends. Cruise is playing against type, dialing down that cocksure megawatt grin in favor of making Ray, as the film begins, an unsympathetic jerk more interested in rebuilding car engines (there’s one hogging space in his kitchen) than spending quality time with his offspring. When a freak lightning storm knocks out the power and opens up a crater in the middle of Main Street, Ray witnesses the arrival of an alien machine – the tripod – birthing its way up from beneath his very feet. From here on out, War of the Worlds
is one lengthy but always gripping chase film as the massive alien tripods stalk hapless humans over hill and dale, blasting them into ash with vicious, serpentine ease while the military runs afoul of their seemingly invincible shields. It’s Spielberg’s best and truest action film since Jaws
, relentlessly paced, pitch-perfectly acted (the young Fanning is almost certain to get a Best Supporting Actress nod come Oscar time), and rife with moments of such horrifically poetic imagery that it’s all you can do not to stop thinking about them long after the film has ended. Spielberg and the gang at Industrial Light & Magic have knocked the ball not only out of the park but out of Earth's orbit as well. The first appearance of the alien tripods is as breathtakingly awesome – in the truest sense of the word, mind you – as anything yet put on film, and that’s only in the film’s first 20 minutes. As Ray and his kids commandeer the only working vehicle in town and light out for Boston with the aim of finding the kids’ mother, they run up against wave after wave of human refugees, panicked and herded by the towering alien craft like so much cattle to the slaughter. And slaughter it is: There’s precious little outright gore in this hard PG-13 film, but one of the film’s most nightmarishly lyrical moments recalls both the awful first seconds after the impact(s) on the World Trade Center towers without so much as a drop of the red stuff. The metaphor for terrorist attack is so front and center it hardly bears mentioning; War of the Worlds
is pure popcorn escapism of the highest order if you want it to be, or more, but it’s never less than thrilling, thanks in enormous part to the film’s magnificent, sternum-rattling sound design, surely another of the film’s Oscar-calibrated achievements. Faithful to Wells’ novel in ways the 1953 version was not, the film’s script, by David Koepp and Josh Friedman, sports more than a few plot holes (for one, the electricity outage seems might selective), and an ending (faithful to Wells’ original, it should be noted) that feels just a tad too abrupt. But that’s no reason to ignore what is certainly one of the most lovingly crafted, end-of-the-world, cinematic feasts ever made, a spectacle of destruction and survival not even C.B DeMille could have envisioned.