A generation later, Steven Spielberg has made the anti-“Close Encounters” in “War of the Worlds,” a gritty, intense and supremely accomplished sci-fier about some distinctly unbenign alien invaders. Latest adaptation of H.G. Wells’ endlessly malleable and resonant 1898 novel preys upon the insecurities of a modern audience that’s more fearful and skittish than was the case when the director made his optimistic early-career smashes about outer space visitors. Relentless mix of breath-sapping scares, awesome spectacle, Tom Cruise and a massive marketing push look to deliver the biggest B.O. haul Spielberg has enjoyed in quite a few years.
With each telling, this elemental story — the first ever written about an alien assault on Earth — offers a subtext appropriate to the paranoia of its era. Wells’ original reflected attitudes about the British Empire as well as the rapid rise of science and technology; Orson Welles’ panic-inducing 1938 radio broadcast (which had a New Jersey setting, as does Spielberg’s film) arrived less than a year before World War II broke out; and the George Pal/Byron Haskin 1953 feature was very much a product of the anti-communist Cold War mentality.
Implicitly, then, this new take exists in the shadow of 9/11 and fears of new enemies bent on nothing less than the total destruction of the West in general and the United States in particular. Granted, “War of the Worlds” arrives after such pics as “Independence Day,” “Armageddon” and many others have served up similar doomsday portraits in vivid detail, so such images are now commonplace in the collective pop culture mind. But Spielberg’s vision of worldly wipeout has such visceral immediacy that it connects almost at once and rarely flags until the end.
For a $135 million special effects epic, it’s striking how grungy and ordinary it looks. Foregoing the widescreen format, desaturating the colors and focusing on nondescript working-class neighborhoods, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski employ a raw, inelegant visual style to disguise the film’s extraordinary stylistic sophistication and make seamless the interlacing of real and computerized action.
No sooner has dockworker Ray Ferrier (Cruise) taken weekend custody of his kids, disaffected teen son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and nervous daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning), from newly married ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) than dark clouds envelope the low-end waterfront area and thunderless lightning bolts hit the ground, knocking out electricity and motor vehicles.
In effects that look as realistic as the humdrum setting, streets crack open and collapse, buildings crumble and an enormous warrior robot rises from beneath the ground and starts firing away with an incinerating ray, vaporizing fleeing Earthlings and blowing up anything it wants. This is annihilation, without explanation.
In its frenzy of surprise firepower and sudden death, this initial action salvo packs a punch not unlike that of the opening of “Saving Private Ryan,” albeit with a PG-13 gore factor. Spielberg is very good at filming frenzied flight — his films are full of it — and showing the characters subjected to the attack as fish in a barrel.
Somehow, Ray figures out how to get a car started, and manages to spirit his kids off to Mary Ann’s house, where they pass a tense night. In the morning, they are greeted by the sight of a crashed passenger jet and members of a news crew, who inform them the 100-foot “tripods” are wreaking destruction everywhere. Despite this, Ray is determined to get the kids to Boston, where Mary Ann and her husband are visiting her parents.
From here on, Spielberg paints a portrait of devastated humanity that at times takes on medieval overtones in its evocation of widespread arbitrary suffering and every-man-for-himself opportunism while a pitiless force rains down pestilence on a suddenly pathetic-looking race. It’s a canvas that has room for some striking, surreal brush strokes, such as Rachel witnessing dozens of bodies floating down a river, or a blazing night train roaring down the tracks.
Amid the mayhem, the volatile Ray can’t keep his fractured family unified. Overcompensating for his failure as a husband and father by yelling a lot and trying to appear in charge when he’s not, he drives his son away and maintains control of Rachel only due to her youth and his promise to get her back to her mom. He’s supposed to be a regular Joe with plenty of foibles but good survival instincts. But he also seems to be on uppers, as Cruise is in overdrive virtually throughout. It’s easy to see why Spielberg wanted the commercial cushion of an above-the-title superstar, but this is no more a performance-based picture than “Jurassic Park,” and might have proven more balanced and artistically effective with a no-name cast.
Ironically, the suspense highlight is provided by the film’s most intimate and quiet scene. Encountering a half-cracked man, Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), at a farmhouse, Ray and Rachel hide with him in the basement, which is soon penetrated by an enormous tentacle that slithers around every wall and post as the humans scurry to avoid detection. The framing, cutting and timing of this breathless sequence are unerring, revealing the master hands of Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn. Interlude precedes the long-delayed revelation of the aliens themselves, nasty looking buggers with dark crustacean-like heads and emaciated versions of a human torso (unlike all previous versions, this one does not identify them as Martians).
There is more terror in store, but when the end comes — the solution is taken directly from the novel — it arrives suddenly, with brief framing narration intoned by Morgan Freeman easing the viewer out of the nightmare. Quiet conclusion may leave some feeling a bit hollow at fadeout, but muted wrap-up is refreshing after all the overdone, slam-bang action climaxes of recent years.
Except for the anonymous soldiers obliged to do their duty, pic completely eschews the military and government types that are normally standard issue in this sort of fare, just as Spielberg and scenarists Josh Friedman (the upcoming “The Black Dahlia”) and David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”) avoid the cliche of showing landmarks being destroyed.
“War of the Worlds” alludes to many of Spielberg’s previous works, and not just his sci-fi features. The contrast could not be more obvious between the gentle-spirited aliens of “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” and the present film’s murdering monsters. But there are unstressed echoes of many other pictures: the societal upheaval and personal displacement of “Empire of the Sun,” the genocide of “Schindler’s List,” the sudden and arbitrary slaughter of “Saving Private Ryan,” the mass hysteria of “Jaws,” the fractious motorized family struggle of “The Sugarland Express.”
Making the film look as grubby as it does was inspired, as it both enhances the action’s believability and distinguishes the picture from the grandiose physicality of its big-budget brethren. Never before have such diverse and numerous visual effects appeared more naturalistic and undifferentiated from the actual, photographed material. Tech contributions are first-rate across the board, and John Williams’ string-dominated score is unusually somber, even mournful.