With "War of the Worlds," the man who invented the movie blockbuster proves again why he owns the patent.
Dakota Fanning and Tom Cruise in "War of the Worlds." (DreamWorks)
Steven Spielberg is the best director there is. Period. And though the former boy wonder is now handling hostile instead of friendly aliens, this science-fiction film, which opened nationwide Wednesday, still has Spielberg's prints all over it.
Based on the 1898 H.G. Wells novel about aliens invading Earth, the script from Josh Friedman and David Koepp brims with traditional Spielbergian themes like divorced parents, and special effects that make the movie magic.
Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a working man and divorced dad. When his wife (Miranda Otto) drops off their two children (Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning) for the weekend, we see just how clueless Ray is as a father.
But when a freakish lightning storm hits Ray's New Jersey community, everything changes. The lightning, it turns out, actually activates tripod machines placed underground eons ago by creatures from another world.
And then the war of the worlds really begins—but it's not much of a war. As a survivalist played by Tim Robbins says, "This is not a war any more than it's a war between men and maggots. It's an extermination."
The tripods go on a destructive rampage, vaporizing humans and essentially turning the rest into refugees. Ray flees with his son and daughter, learning how to be a father along the way.
"War of the Worlds" isn't just a Big Summer Movie; it's creepy as all get-out. Between human ash, blood-stained fields, downed airliners and the occasional inhumane action, Spielberg accomplishes just what he said he set out to do: Scare the you-know-what out of us.
Ray wears a Yankees cap and lives on a patriotic block. And when the terror begins, daughter Rachel of course asks, "Is that the terrorists?" In these ways, Spielberg plays on our fears more intensely than he has in the past.
Crucially, Spielberg frightens us not with a handful of unsettling shots, but with a mastery of telling a story through those shots. Spielberg uses longtime collaborators on this project (editor, designer, composer, etc.), and together they're as efficient as one of those otherworldly tripods.
Cruise plays the thoughtless father well, and Chatwin and Fanning nail their roles. With dazzling effects from Stan Winston Studios and Industrial Light and Magic, "War of the Worlds" is a wondrous organism of 21st-century cinema.
From the bone-rattling sounds of the terrorizing tripods to the sense of isolation and displacement, prepare to have Spielberg wring every drop of doom from your admission price.
As Spielberg knows, it pays to be scared.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images. Reviewer's Note: The overall mood is unsettling, and considering some of the disturbing images, this film isn't for young ones.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Josh Friedman and David Koepp (based on the book by H.G. Wells)
Cast: Ray: Tom Cruise; Rachel: Dakota Fanning; Robbie: Justin Chatwin; Ogilvy: Tim Robbins; Mary Ann: Miranda Otto.
The movie's official Web site is here.