H.G. Wells wouldn’t recognize his 1898 alien-invasion novel, The War of the Worlds, in Steven Spielberg’s updated film version. But Wells could probably relate to the ensuing fear and panic. Unlike the campy 1953 film rendition with its primitive Martians, Spielberg’s War is set in a real world seized by a terrorist attack. Divorced dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise, complex and vulnerable), a New Jersey dockyard worker, is a screw-up with his daughter (Dakota Fanning) and his teen son (Justin Chatwin). So when huge, hostile alien Tripods rise out of the ground during an electrical storm and t laying waste, Ray grabs the kids and runs. Stealing a car that the aliens haven’t immobilized, the Ferriers hit the road to Boston to find the kids’ remarried mom (Miranda Otto) and a safe haven.
What road trip, by car and foot, inspires Spielberg to create extraordinary images of a frayed family in a frayed civilization. The 9/11 parallels are unmistakable, as the streets of America are littered with bodies and the next threat comes without reason or mercy. The Tripods kill on instinct like the shark in Jaws. Mechanical arms seek out prey like the raptors in Jurassic Park. Spielberg borrows from himself, and others: The claustrophobia of The Birds is evoked when Ray hides in a basement with a mad survivalist (Tim Robbins) who writes his own doomsday scenario; Titanic springs to mind when the Tripods capsize a ferry, spilling bodies into watery graves. It’s those dark visions of destruction that stick, even when Spielberg pushes the script to an unlikely happy ending. Great foreplay, failed orgasm.