While the exuberant Tom Cruise who has been showing up on talk shows the last few weeks has been amusing, it's a good thing that this new persona doesn't turn up in War of the Worlds. Instead, the usually distracting superstar manages to completely slip into character without announcing every second that he's Tom Cruise, dammit, and he's the ultimate everyman hero. As Ray Ferrier, he's intense, brooding and a little bit dangerous. He spends almost the whole movie on the run, trying to protect his two kids from alien invaders who are annihilating everything in their path, and he never breaks the spell he casts on the audience from the first minute.
The same, however, can't be said of his main costar, Dakota Fanning, who mostly just screeches, and his only real grown-up costar, Tim Robbins, who makes people laugh out loud merely by appearing on screen. And it's especially untrue of the plot of the movie.
Updating the H.G. Wells classic Martian invasion tale for our time, Steven Spielberg is supposedly leaning heavily on the metaphor of terrorism, but just because things blow up, that doesn't automatically make something a rumination on 9/11. To get a satisfying metaphorical equivalent to the original, you have to dig deeper than that.
The best he can do for setting up a sense of foreboding is some initial narration from Morgan Freeman that lays out the general scenario '- that aliens have been coveting our planet for some time and eventually arrive to take us over. Ray, a divorced dockworker who doesn't have much to say for himself, is just a device to get the action going. He's not on the screen for five minutes before a freak lightning storm unleashes huge killing machines that look like giant tripods and start cutting people down in the streets.
Presumably, if the machine shells were buried hundreds or even thousands of years ago, the aliens wouldn't have been able to predict where the population centers would grow, so it's plausible that they would bother to target a small New Jersey working-class town (plus the Orson Welles radio play focused on Newark). But that's beside the more major point of why the aliens would wait until this moment to attack if they were ready to go ages ago. This is Spielberg's own plot twist, not culled from the source material, but the only way this jibes with a terrorist attack (or a Nazi invasion or communism or simply Darwinian selection) is the notion of sleeper cells being among us. But if that was Spielberg's intent, he misses the point that 9/11 didn't happen as just a surprise attack for no reason.
For that matter, most disaster movies have a reason for the catastrophes that transpire and lay out an internal logic to the situations, even if it's preposterous, like in The Core. The best are intricate and cool like The Matrix and The Terminator, but while everything looks fantastic here and Spielberg's got more visual filmmaking skill than almost any other action director, he doesn't have anything like that going on at all. He never tries to explain the aliens, and there's no real hope that his hero is going to be the one to step up and figure it all out.
Ray's a dockworker, and Spielberg doesn't set him up to be some basement science genius, except for giving him mechanical abilities that allow him to spirit his kids out of town in the only working car in the tri-state area. There are a few moments where you can tell he's trying to contemplate the enormity of it all. The tripods shoot off a weird blood-fueled mist that makes red weeds grow everywhere, but all he can do is break off pieces of the weeds and sniff at them. He does get one of the things, finally, with a kind of Hail Mary suicide attempt, but that's when the tripods are already on their way out naturally. They kind of peter out, just like the movie does.
Rather than making a deep epic, Spielberg has made a simple amusement ride, and it ends as abruptly and as anticlimactically as the roller-coaster car jerking to a halt at the exit as the bumper wheels lock into place against the rails. That would be forgivable '- even enjoyable '- as a summer popcorn flick, if it weren't for one last Spielbergian touch: a treacly family reunion that is so implausible that it also causes people to laugh out loud and makes true action die-hards moan.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you like Tom again, but you'll wonder when Steven Spielberg's going to make a good movie again
Stars: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Josh Friedman, David Koepp
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson
Release date: June 29, 2005