Director: Steven Spielberg

In 1898, H.G. Wells published "The War of the Worlds," a novel that would eventually become one of the most influential science fiction novels of the century that followed. In the hundred years since its first publication, Wells's tale of an insurmountable alien invasion has inspired movies like Independence Day and Mars Attacks!, and has been adapted into a syndicated television series that ran from 1988 to 1990, an Oscar-winning movie directed in 1953 by George Pál that drew a paralell between the alien invasion and the Red Menace, and Orson Welles's infamous 1938 radio play invoking World War II. No stranger to huge summer blockbusters or movies about aliens visiting Earth, Steven Spielberg teamed up with his Minority Report star Tom Cruise in 2005 for his own adaptation of the novel. With fifty years of technological improvement over the 1953 version and the aftershocks of the World Trade Center attacks still lingering, does Spielberg's version of the alien incursion story hold up to Pál's movie and Welles's radio play?

WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)Spielberg's version of the story centers around Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a blue-collar crane operator that can barely making ends meet. Well, he doesn't exactly make ends meet, but he gets the ends really close to each other and calls it a day. He does have an awesome car, I'll give him that. Anyway, Ray arrives home from work one morning to babysit his two children while his pregnant ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and her new husband Tim (David Alan Basche) go to Boston to spend the weekend with her parents. Ray is extremely lacking in parenting skills, and is so wrapped up with his own life that he hardly even knows who his kids are. He finds himself ignored when he tries to say hello to his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who has adopted the "rebellious teenager" outlook. Ray later tries to start up a game of catch, only to get met with the line, "baseball season's over." Robbie is so dead set against spending time with his father that he calls him by his first name instead of "Dad," even starts wearing a Red Sox hat, a cardinal sin to a Yankees fan like Ray. On the other hand, his preadolescent daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is a bit more willing to spend time with Ray, but still shows more affection towards her new stepfather.

After attempting to find solace in an afternoon nap, he awakens to find both Robbie and his car gone. And perhaps worse than that, a strange, powerful lightning storm arrives, prompting everyone in Ray's neighborhood to step out into the streets and their backyards to watch. But once it gets out of hand, everyone retreats back to their houses until it apparently subsides, but they're quick to discover that the storm has rendered every piece of electronic equipment in the house inoperable. Ray steps out into the sidewalk and bumps into Robbie, who is on his way after Ray's car stalled along with every other car in the street. Robbie tells him about how twenty-six bolts of lightning hit a spot a block over, and Ray sends him home while he goes off to investigate. He soon arrives at the small crater left by the lightning, and as a crowd starts to grow around it, the ground beneath them begins to shake. The shaking is only the tip of the iceberg, as an enormous three-legged machine breaks through the ground, leveling buildings and reducing every human it sees to dust with its laser beams. Narrowly avoiding getting zapped on numerous occasions, Ray rushes home, packs the kids into a recently-repaired minivan, and hits the road through the New England countryside to find safety, wherever it may be.

It may not hold up as one of the smartest science fiction movies ever, but War of the Worlds is an exciting, intense thrill ride. The movie very rarely lets up, only occasionally letting we the viewer catch our breath before moving to another terrifying situation. While a movie about an alien invasion may be science fiction by design, It may not hold up as one of the smartest science fiction movies ever, but War of the Worlds is a hybrid of disaster movies and old-school monster movies. So imagine if Godzilla was one of the aliens from Independence Day, and you're set. The movie is also very much a part of post-9/11 culture, as evidenced by the two children asking if terrorists are behind the invasion. Fellow online reviewer James Berardinelli theorized that this movie evidences that a great director can overcome a mediocre script, and I'm inclined to agree. Steven Spielberg (with the assistance of the amazing camerawork of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer extraordinaire John Williams's dark, subdued score) shows why he's one of the best directors in Hollywood with this movie, which boasts numerous impressive visuals, such as a flaming locomotive rocketing past a group of survivors or the revelation of the first alien tripod. Spielberg has peppered his film with allusions to numerous sci-fi classics, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to The Day The Earth Stood Still and British TV miniseries Quartermass and the Pit. There's even an extremely subtle nod to The Blob, though that one may be more of a coincidence than anything. But where the direction truly succeeds is the little moments, like a scene in which Dakota Fanning's character discovers a quiet river in the middle of the woods. Everything is calm and serene, but that is quickly dashed away by a mass deluge of corpses floating downstream. The peacefulness of the scene is transformed into horror, and serves as perhaps the movie's most truly disturbing moment.

However, no one will accuse Josh Friedman and David Koepp of having written a screenplay worthy of any awards. Many of the characters find themselves either unlikable or poorly written, and outside of what they've taken verbatim from Wells's original novel, not a lot of their dialogue is very outstanding or noteworthy. To call the script "mediocre" is the biggest compliment I can give it. The movie also suffers from an unbearably weak ending, but in all fairness, the aliens are brought down in the same fashion they were in the novel. Then again, as lame as it is, I guess it's a good thing that humans never found a cure for the common cold, otherwise we'd have been conquered by our new alien overlords. Speaking of lame endings, let's not forget the idiocy of the film's coda, a "happily ever after" moment that makes no sense within the context of scenes earlier in the movie. It's such an enormous leap in logic, it's insulting. How are we the viewer supposed to believe this when common sense dictates otherwise? Maybe Spielberg should make a movie about the coda, as a twist on the Hamlet spinoff Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. However, in defense of the script, Friedman and Koepp manage to throw in a few scenes that resemble a social commentary, how humans would react when faced with the end of the world and the possible extinction of our species. Would we be unselfishly brave in the face of adversity, or would the mob mentality take over as society devolved into sheer insanity?

The acting, as well, is a mixed bag. Tom Cruise is great like always, but his character is a selfish jerk, who at first only rushes his kids to Boston so he can dump them off on their mother. He spends so much time as an unlikable character than when he begins his evolution into a good father and person, we don't really believe it. You know, in retrospect, the idea of Cruise starring in a movie about aliens is kinda funny, what with his religion being founded by aliens and all. Yeah, I think it's crazy too, but Hollywood makes people stupid. Anyway, Justin Chatwin is rather boring and uninspiring as the typical moody, rebellious teenager. He comes off as being just plain irritating at times, like he's going out of his way to start arguments with Cruise's character. And folks, Dakota Fanning is absolutely wretched in the movie. The audience is supposed to feel sympathy for her, but she achieved quite the opposite. She's just an annoying little rat for the whole thing. By the end of the movie, I was rooting for the aliens to zap her with one of those heat rays, but sadly, it never happened. Fanning serves no purpose in the movie, outside of screaming, crying, and doing something stupid to let the aliens know where she's hiding. The girl even screams and cries when she's happy. If I never see another character like this one in a movie, I'll be the happiest boy alive. And it's funny that her and Morgan Freeman (the movie's narrator) are both in War of the Worlds, because it seems like they're both in every movie that comes out nowadays. She's only eleven years old, and has been in as many movies as actors three times her age. I'm sure Fanning is a sweet little girl, but maybe she should try being a kid for a while, and see how that works. The only other cast member whose performance I thought stood out was Tim Robbins as an unhinged survivalist that offers Ray and Rachel temporary shelter. He's only in one scene and has a relatively minor role, but Robbins makes his character both believable and entertaining, if not a little sleazy.

A review posted on IMDB.com says that War of the Worlds was the best alien invasion movie ever made until the third act, at which point the movie tries to shoehorn itself into various summer action movie clichés. I'm inclined to agree, because the movie's vibe changes significantly once Cruise stops acting like the aliens are intergalactic exterminators and starts acting like he's going to conquer them one tripod death machine at a time. The movie does have exciting action sequences and simmering tension, as evidenced by the lengthy scene where the alien probe searches for human survivors (recalling the "spider search" scene in Minority Report). And while showing the destruction of cities around the globe may have been more spectacular, it would have undermined the idea of showing how the family unit would survive. In spite of its glaring flaws, War of the Worlds still manages to be an entertaining. And for that, I'll give it three and a half stars. Check it out.

Final Rating: ***½