War of the Worlds (PG-13) ★★★½

Review Date: June 29th, 2005

All you can really say about War of the Worlds is: a) thank goodness Steven Spielberg has had a lifelong obsession for aliens great and small and b) he has the fortitude and talent to make an invasion by them scary, intense, and so damn real.


Based on H.G. Wells' classic 1898 novel, this War is set in a contemporary world, where the threat of terrorism looms around every corner. But not even the brains at Homeland Security can prepare the human race for this kind of an attack. After a series of mysterious and powerful lightning storms strike all over the world, giant three-legged war machines, long buried beneath the earth, rise up and start incinerating everything--and everyone--in sight. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a divorced New Jersey dockworker, horrifyingly witnesses the first strike in this catastrophic alien invasion. He is suddenly faced with protecting his estranged children--teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning)--after they are left with him for the weekend. Traveling across the ravaged countryside, Ray takes them on a journey to reunite them with their mother, and gets caught up in a desperate tide of refugees, fleeing from a seemingly inexorable and merciless enemy. But are they really unstoppable? Ha! We'll see who has the last laugh, you nasty old susceptible aliens.


As I watched Tom Cruise run and hide from the invading aliens, I didn't once think about Scientology, antidepressant drugs or Katie Holmes. Not once. That's because no matter what kind of personal issues Cruise has going on at the moment, he is a consummate actor, drawing you into his on-screen world without missing a beat. As deadbeat dad Ray, Cruise aptly exhibits an apathy to his prodigy, only to then turn into a courageous American hero, fighting to protect the ones he loves, without one clich├ęd speech or false moment. Quite a feat. Of course, he also has a lot of support from his co-stars, especially Dakota Fanning as his daughter, in keeping things genuine. While either playing terrified with fervent screams, or deadly still from shock, the young actress' tearstained face gives the whole horrific experience a very human quality. Man, imagine what's she's going to do once she's an adult. Chatwin (The Chumscrubber) also does a fine job as the rebellious teen, whose growing need to join the fight has his dad torn up inside. Tim Robbins makes a memorable appearance as a refugee on the verge of madness, holed up in a bombed-out basement and ready to single-handedly take the aliens down. And finally, as a nice touch, we hear Morgan Freeman's deep, resonate voice open and close the film with very poignant passages from H.G. Wells' literary masterpiece.


Spielberg's back--and what a relief! A War of the Worlds update is just what he needed to rejuvenate himself, especially after his latest slate of tepid movies (i.e. The Terminal, A.I.). I mean, it has been a long time since we've seen the passionate Spielberg--the special-effects driven director who challenges himself to make the most visually stunning movies ever (Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark) or the finely tuned director who can create the most incredibly intimate movies against a historical backdrop (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List). And nothing on this earth inspires Spielberg more than aliens, especially now that he has grown older and wiser since his kindler, gentler E.T. days. Keeping to Wells' original source material, and paying homage to both Orson Welles' infamous 1938 radio play (both are set in New Jersey) and the original 1953 film (a marvel of special effects for its time), War is an absolute seat-gripping wonder to behold. From the beginning of the Tripod war machines' reigning terror, disintegrating poor souls with their heat rays or snatching them up in the air with their tentacle extensions (to use for a very gruesome task indeed), it's shockingly realistic. The only small drawback is showing the actual aliens, especially in this sophisticated day and age of Alien and Independence Day. It just isn't necessary and adds very little to the already mounting tension. But it's a small quibble. This War will give you nightmares for weeks.

Bottom Line

With the power of Spielberg and Cruise behind it, the sinister and tense War of the Worlds is this summer's blockbuster to beat them all.