(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriters: Josh Friedman/David Koepp/based on the novel by H. G. Wells; cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; editor: Michael Kahn; music: John Williams; cast: Tom Cruise (Ray Ferrier), Dakota Fanning (Rachel Ferrier), Miranda Otto (Mary Ann), Justin Chatwin (Robbie Ferrier), Tim Robbins (Harlan Ogilvy), Morgan Freeman (Narrator), David Alan Basche (Tim); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Kathleen Kennedy/Colin Wilson/Paula Wagner; Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures; 2005)

“The beauty in this lesser in everything but the budget ($135 million) Spielberg film, is in the spectacle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster disaster film based on the 1898 H. G. Wells novel, penned by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, is about a world-wide alien invasion and updates the novel by taking broad swipes at America’s current terrorist enemy. This Wells version comes after Orson Welles’ realistic fear-inducing 1938 radio broadcast and Byron Haskin’s 1953 feature that became a platform for an anti-communist Cold War message.

The special effects were wonderful; visually it’s a feast for the eyes; the attacking aliens were chilling to behold; but the heavy-handed attempt to make it into both an anti-terrorist (had the look of the 9/11 attack) and a parental guide film on how to raise children responsibly, fell on deaf ears in these quarters. Spielberg worked previously with Tom Cruise on Minority Report, and they successfully team up again to do their thing but this time with alien invaders. Tom plays an intense, short-tempered dockworker named Ray Ferrier, a divorced roughneck from Bayonne, New Jersey, who reacts to an alien invasion by forgoing his usual neglectful behavior and tries to safeguard his two children, 10-year-old cutie pie daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and estranged teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), he has for weekend custody. After being bewildered by a series of wicked storms, bizarre wind patterns going into the eye of the storm and many lightning strikes in the same place, Ray discovers that robotic spaceships have landed in the neighborhood and so-called Tripods, buried under the ground since ancient times, have emerged and are zapping everyone and everything in sight. Ray instinctively senses this is an attack and not an act of nature, and steals a minivan in all the confusion of the initial attack and plans to go to Boston, to ride out the attack, where his pregnant ex-wife Mary Ann and her nice guy husband Tim are staying with her parents. Though everyone seems confused and is in a daze as to what’s going down, the viewer is given the real dope (which means the literal words from the Wells novel) by Morgan Freeman’s smooth voice-over narration.

There’s nothing more to the simplistic storyline than surviving against an alien enemy that seems invulnerable (at the end, we find out out that everyone has some kind of vulnerability!). The choices laid out are to either fight or find someplace to hide until the danger passes. Sonny boy wants to join the National Guard and fight, daddy wants to reach a safe spot and chill out. Their minivan ride through a destroyed Connecticut landscape is like a ride in hell, and to make matters worse during this external crisis the uncommunicative son and impatient father are still having a rough time in their simmering internal crisis of trying to understand each other as one earthling to another (or, as one Red Sox fan to one Yankee fan). The alien invasion serves as a chance for dad to redeem himself in front of the children, which takes place while aliens keep popping up, the soldiers are ineffective in stopping them, and the frightened little girl keeps screaming on cue. Dad is a first-class jerk (probably not much acting here, since Cruise made an ass of himself on the Today Show by going off against psychology as a legitimate science as opposed to his supposedly reputable Scientology) who now suddenly becomes a mentsh and without therapy, as he openly shows the kids how much he loves them. The only other attempt at acting (or I should say overacting) is put forth by Tim Robbins, who plays a mentally-warped creepy-looking survivor hiding from the invaders in his farmhouse cellar (who might even be scarier than the aliens, but still gets off one great anti-Bush line that comes from his heart “Occupations always fail.”).

The beauty in this lesser in everything but the budget ($135 million) Spielberg film, is in the spectacle. A mob panic scene at a Hudson River ferry crossing, the Tripods emerging from the gutter in a working-class Bayonne neighborhood, the horror of seeing so many corpses floating downstream of a river, and a plane crash in a suburban subdivision that leaves no survivors and so much destruction. These few agonizing and wonderfully conceived moments do a film make, and serve to put this rather soulless but, nevertheless, reasonably effective film over the top as another acceptable Spielberg movie. In any case, it was better than all those other spate of recent alien invader flicks, including that awful Independence Day sci-fi epic.

War of the Worlds Poster

REVIEWED ON 6/30/2005 GRADE: B-    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/