War of the Worlds (2005, Spielberg)

Rating: B

Dir: Steven Spielberg
Star: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins

The biggest director on the planet. The biggest star on the planet. Doing SF. No doubt this is going to be spectacular, dimmed only slightly by the fact that we’ve seen Steven direct Tom, running terrified, before – in Minority Report, right down to both having a scene where Cruise freezes, so as not to be found by mechanical search devices. However, this is much larger in scale, and the word “epic” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Not to say it doesn’t have flaws, some of them major; it’s just that they largely won’t be apparent while you’re sitting slackjawed in front of the screen, gawping at the sights laid out before you.

The first problem is Cruise, whose stardom is now such that it overshadows any role he plays. The concept of him as a blue-collar dock worker is so ludicrous, it’s a good thing the film doesn’t dwell on it. And, since you never forget he’s as well-known as Jesus Christ, there’s no real threat – you know they’re not going to kill him. Then, there are the kids: one teenage brat (Chatwin), one adorable (Fanning). At least, she starts off that way; from about 1/3 through, she switches to a strict rotation of high-pitched fear and catatonia that rapidly wears thin. But, really: you don’t go to see a film called War of the Worlds for character development. You go to see things – and people – getting blasted, and the film delivers in spades here. From the moment the first cracks appear in the earth [these invaders’ machines have been parked underground], the hits just keep on coming, executed by a master with $200m to spend. After a pair of, frankly, wussy alien movies in ET and Close Encounters, it’s great to see Spielberg get with the program and deliver the bacon.

As long as he stays away from dwelling on Cruise too much (Look! He’s the star!), Spielberg also manages to keep hold of the tragedy; shots of ash-covered survivors and clothing floating down from the sky are disturbingly reminiscent of 9/11. And perhaps the most chilling sequence is where a mob strip our hero from his car. Man’s inhumanity to man is about as bad as the alien heat-ray, and it makes for a surprisingly downbeat experience, with rays of hope few and far between. Nods to previous versions: the grandparents are played by the stars of the 1953 film, while Robbins’ survivalist is named Ogilvy, after the astronomer in Wells’ novel.