“Katie who?”
“Katie who?”

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is one scary bastard. This is a movie that starts taunting you soon after its beginning, and it never stops. Once the Tripods of H.G. Wells’ seminal science fiction story start zapping anything that moves, the film’s vibe is that of utter doom, and it’s downright mean—even vicious. This is the harshest, most terrifying film in Spielberg’s canon, and this is the guy who made Jaws.

When irresponsible divorced dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) invites his little girl, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), into the backyard to take in an electrical storm, he thinks it’s just a dramatic start to a few days where he has to watch his son (Justin Chatwin) and daughter. He makes a few observations (“The wind is blowing towards the storm.”) and tells his kid to quit worrying, stay put and enjoy the show. When the lightning strikes hit too close to home, Ray winds up under the table cowering with Rachel, and we’re right there with them.

The lights go out, and Ray ventures into town for supplies and answers. He doesn’t get any milk for the kids, but he does get a rather startling revelation as to what’s going on with the freak lightning strikes. Something waiting under the Earth’s surface has risen up, and it’s got a deep contempt for the human race.

This isn’t one of those films where aliens land, blow up landmarks, and humanity joins forces to fight its common foe. When laser beams start vaporizing targets, everybody scatters without a clue how to fend for themselves. The enemy is far too daunting, and defeating it is not an option. The only option is to hide.

Spielberg has obviously grown much more cynical since 9/11. The alien carnage—and the human reactions to it—remind me of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., right down to crowds fleeing for their lives like New Yorkers running from crumbling skyscrapers. Clothes fall from the sky like office papers floating to the ground after the Twin Towers were lost. It’s startling imagery for a summer blockbuster, liable to leave more than a few quite shaken.

The massive alien Tripods that roam the landscape do have one thing in common with the mother ship from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They emit a foghorn-like blast that sounds similar to the glass-shattering, big bass notes the mother ship hit during that film’s happy musical finale. That’s it for the comparisons to other Spielberg forays into extraterrestrial life. The aliens of this film are pure bad, and they are all about killing.

The film will draw some comparisons to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. That movie borrowed a lot from the Wells classic, and the protagonists in both pictures spend a lot of time hiding out in basements. This film far outclasses Signs and pretty much any film in the sci-fi alien genre. Spielberg has made yet another classic.

Cruise plays a terrific, imperfect hero. His Ray manages to escape impossible situations not so much due to ingenuity but pure luck. He brings a reality to a role that many actors would’ve played with one dimension. It’s the best acting work of his career. With Fanning, Spielberg manages to do what he did with Haley Joel Osment in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. He takes a child actor that most directors portrayed as too precocious, and reveals the amazing talents within. Fanning delivers a child’s performance unrivaled in recent years.

This has been a great summer. First, a rousing installment of Star Wars, then the best Batman movie yet, and now War of the Worlds. With this film, Spielberg reclaims the mantle of Summer Movie King. He will also manage to scare a lot of people to death, the sort of thing an alien invasion movie should do. Be prepared for long intervals of holding your breath because this is the real deal.

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