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Movie review: War of the Worlds

Movies | Steven Spielberg's retelling of this classic science-fiction tale is distilled down to an account of one family's fight for survival

Issue: "Africa: The new frontier," July 16, 2005

Most summer blockbusters are like concert films. They're not so much unified stories as a collection of crowd-pleasing crescendos. It's as though the filmmakers don't trust themselves to really sell the action, so they rely on a series of small payoffs-a Will Smith one-liner or the creative annihilation of a villain-to keep the audience engaged.

War of the Worlds is Steven Spielberg's $150 million answer to the blockbuster as concert film, relying on gritty realism and sustained intensity in a story dependent on wild leaps of imagination. For the most part, Mr. Spielberg succeeds-although he's tripped up by some usual Spielbergian pitfalls.

War of the Worlds is a new adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel, which was famously adapted as a radio play by Orson Welles and later as a 1953 movie. The PG-13-rated film (for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images) is far too intense for young kids and contains some bad language, but it's clearly a cut above standard summer fare.

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This retelling of Welles' story is distilled down to an account of one family's fight for survival. Tom Cruise plays Ray, a New Jersey dockworker at the heart of the story. Ray, who drives a Mustang and is clad in a leather jacket, lives alone-he's rebuilding a car engine in his kitchen. Mr. Cruise as a dockworker is perhaps the film's biggest strain on credulity, but the actor pulls off some nice moments. It's an interesting extension of previous characters, a one-time hotshot who's now divorced and doesn't know how to relate to his two kids. Ray still has the trappings of cool, but he's an aging failure.

Ray's kids come to stay with him for the weekend at the outset of the film. Rachel (the always reliable Dakota Fanning) is a precocious preteen; Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is a sullen teenager. Just hours into their stay with dad, a violent lightning storm-minus both thunder and rain-rocks the neighborhood. Reports of similar storms across the globe, knocking out power and disabling everything from watches to cars, come across the television before New Jersey, too, loses connection to the outside world.

When the storm subsides, Ray walks outside and watches one of the deeply buried "tripods" that will menace humanity for the rest of the film emerge from beneath the surface of the earth. It's one of War's best special-effects sequences, as massive cracks split buildings in two and asphalt ripples as though it were liquid.

After that, the rest of the film is mostly just running and hiding, but Mr. Spielberg, so thoroughly in command of his craft, knows how to build, and build upon, furious intensity. War is remarkable almost as much for what is absent as what is present. Never does Mr. Spielberg cut away to deliberating politicians, grim-faced generals, or baffled scientists, now prerequisites of disaster films. He resolutely stays with Ray and his family, never allowing the audience the breathing room of escaping their panicked flight.

For all the missed opportunities of which some might complain-the larger significance of the alien invasion or the reasons behind it are not once explored-one must first judge the film based on what the director was trying to accomplish. And, in the context of Mr. Spielberg's limited focus, War is quite effective. Mr. Spielberg rightly understands that it is the human element, not the special effects themselves, that are most compelling. It's the panic of a confused and terrified crowd, a desperate fight for a working vehicle, and the catastrophic sinking of a ferry boat that hit closest to home.

It is that same human element, though, that also weakens the film. Mr. Spielberg delves into an unconvincing subplot with Ray's son, who seems to want to fight the aliens but has a hard time verbalizing it. He also tacks on a happy ending that provides one of the film's truly groan-worthy moments. Family is always an important theme in Mr. Spielberg's films-but it's not always clear what he's trying to communicate, nor does he often find a way to rise above sap.

But as a demonstration of Mr. Spielberg's enormous gifts in storytelling-he has a rare confidence in both himself and his audience-and as a refreshingly sincere attempt at summer blockbuster thrills, War of the Worlds is unlikely to be matched soon.

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