War of the Worlds Review
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a divorced dockworker who married young and had two kids, but by his own admission hasn’t really grown up yet. So what happens when his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto, seemingly gone redhead all of a sudden) leaves his two children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and her older brother Robbie (Justin Chatwin) with him for a weekend? That’s when the aliens invade…
H.G. Wells published his novel in 1898. As they did with the previous film version of 1953, Hollywood has relocated his alien invasion (not from Mars this time) from Horsell Common, Woking, Surrey, to the United States. We aren’t privy to the President and his generals’ high-level discussions on how to defeat the alien menace. We see it all from the viewpoint of one man trying to save his family. It’s a good question as to how well a film star – who by definition is not “ordinary” – can play a regular guy, but Cruise makes a decent fist of it, and importantly his character remains likeable. He’s outacted though by that increasingly impressive eleven-year-old actress Dakota Fanning. Miranda Otto isn’t onscreen for very long, but does what she can with an underwritten role. (Her pregnancy was real, though prosthetically enhanced.) Tim Robbins makes a sinister impression in the latter stages. There isn’t much of Wells left in this film, but David Koepp’s script does retain the ending, and it’s as much of a deus ex machina now as it was 107 years ago.
War of the Worlds shows Spielberg in Jaws and Jurassic Park mode, where his aim is to tighten the screws on the audience as much as possible. It’s not without humour, especially early on. (Ray tells Robbie the invaders aren’t terrorists but from “someplace else”. “What, like Europe?” Robbie replies.) But with the aid of a floor-shaking soundtrack and some outstanding special effects, much of it is harrowing. The 12A certificate is well deserved, so parents of young children take note.
This isn’t Spielberg making statements, but constructing an elaborate rollercoaster ride for the worldwide public. After all, after a few recent misfires, he could no doubt do with a hit, and he’s returned to the sort of thing he knows he can do very well. This is Spielberg’s first cinema feature in over twenty years to come in under the two-hour mark: it’s a technically brilliant scare machine without much flab on it.