Steven Spielberg is our greatest living filmmaker. He has been consistently superb in his element, which is delivering dramatic tales of survival. Some may argue that he lost his footing a few rare times along the way (Temple of Doom, 1941 and Hook), but not here. His latest film is a remake of the original 1953 film of the same title, and he brings the best out of everyone attached. Spielberg delivers the goods for an intense white-knuckled two-hour journey -- fifteen minutes in and we’re twisting uncomfortably for the remainder of War of the Worlds.
Spielberg is expert at helping us quickly understand the drama that is the Ferrier family (Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin); we see Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier as the wholly inadequate divorced, part-time dad that he is. We know instantly why Mrs. Ferrier left him and why his kids have no connection to him. He’s a selfish jerk, but not for long. Dakota Fanning is great as the youngest Ferrier trying not to mentally collapse or get vaporized by tri-pod aliens. Justin Chatwin is equally good as her older brother who is more like her father helping her stay calm.
War is very similar in feel to Jaws, Duel, Close Encounters and Jurassic Park. In each of these films we track our heroes as they confront faceless, formidable and relentless pursuers. Whether it was the submerged shark, the faceless driver of a semi, or unseen alien pilots of large cloud-covered UFOs, we sit on the edge of our seats as our heroes try everything merely to survive. Indeed, when they make it back to shore, avoid the Jurassic mouth that is trying to bite them into equal parts, or finally get to a “safe” place at a roadside café, we relax only for a moment because we know that a semi is about to crash through the phone booth, a Great White is about to try and sink the boat, or aliens are about to unscrew the hinges on the front door.
And, so it is with War. We don’t see the alien life-forms for over an hour, and then only twice. Spielberg holds the reveal back here as well, and the tension is taut when it first occurs. This film is not for children. War of the Worlds is a sci-fi horror film, full of death, blood, and tense moments. We track the Ferrier clan as they innovate their survival scramble, unwittingly traversing headlong into foreign tripod invaders, only to use every ounce of their courage, mental toughness, and physical stamina to steer clear once again. We witness real deaths, not stylized violence a la Lucas’s Star Wars. As he used the red jacket in Schindler’s List, Spielberg here uses clothing here to hauntingly remind us that these garments were once occupied by neighbors, friends, and loved ones.
This film will remind you of many other end-of-the-earth scenario films, like Signs, Independence Day, and Armageddon. But, it is done in a very earthy, real manner (Signs was excellent, but lacked the FX firepower and punch that this film has). When watching War, you feel like you are on Ray Ferrier’s block and that you’ve brazenly tagged along attempting to survive. We can’t help be drawn in rather than simply watch from some removed safe distance in our $13.50 leather stadium seating. The special effects are amazing, and you will not find a single defect on the FX front. The screenplay and score are both economical, serving the overall quality of War of the Worlds. There is no misstep on the plot with “quick-fixes” that save the day deus ex machina style. Instead, we watch our protagonists suffer and attempt to survive the old fashioned way, with gritty realism, and earthling know-how. If you loved the Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi festivals on your local television stations as a kid, you’ll love this film.