Movie review: 'War of the Worlds'

EntertainmentMoviesFamilyFictionTelevisionDakota FanningTom Cruise

3½ stars (out of four)

A technological marvel of a movie that blows a chance to be much, much more, Steven Spielberg's new film of H.G. Wells' science fiction classic "War of the Worlds" takes us on a wild journey through two sides of its supremely popular director: the dark and the light.

A first-class pop entertainment packed to the brim with astounding effects and near-non-stop action and suspense -- and laced with painful undercurrents, including numbing portrayals of social collapse and chilling references to 9/11 -- "War" rivets and amazes, even if it falls just frustratingly short of the mind-expanding grandeur it could have had.

Still, Spielberg and company send Tom Cruise through one blood-chilling roller-coaster ride after another, with Cruise as the usual Spielberg common-man hero: Ray Ferrier, a dockworker in New Jersey chased toward Boston by seemingly omnipotent monsters from space in huge tripod walking machines that lay waste to much of the planet.

With all of his apple-cheeked, reckless charm, Cruise looks like a guy who could outrace an extraterrestrial. Spielberg puts him through the wringer, just as he once did Dennis Weaver in "Duel" and the shark-hunters in "Jaws," while screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible") begin the battle with a broken-family story.

When Ray's newly upper-class ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) drops off their children at Ray's messy Bayonne, N.J., house, we get a glimpse of the distance Ray has put between his family and himself. But suddenly, the world begins to radically change: Strange storm clouds gather, a space vessel hovers, lightning blasts strike, and those towering tripods emerge from the ground with their deadly armaments raining down hell on earth.

Soon Ray is on the run, pulling along little daughter Rachel (the prodigious Dakota Fanning), and rebellious son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) from one horrific chase to the next, through a landscape turned into a chaos of fleeing citizens, outmatched military and one loony survivalist named Ogilvy -- played by Tim Robbins in what seems a madder version of his "Mystic River" Dave Boyle role: a broken man turned psycho loner.

As the tripods march, as buildings and cars are fried, ferries upended, cities set aflame and helpless people blasted or scooped from the ground like wriggling prey, Ray tries desperately to shepherd his children to safety. And Cruise keeps him interesting throughout, playing this blue-collar guy with some of the obsessiveness that permeates his more nuanced, offbeat performances ("Magnolia," "Jerry Maguire," "Collateral," "Born on the Fourth of July").

He also plays something more vulnerable: a father who has avoided responsibilities and now, agonizingly, has to make up for it fast. He even has a great moment or two, like the scene where he can't recall a lullaby for Rachel and sings her "Little Deuce Coupe" instead.

Much of the time, though, he's classic pop movie Cruise: cocky (at first), trim, athletic and on-the-go. And the movie works best as a classic Spielberg scare-chase -- like "Duel," "Jaws" or "Jurassic Park."

But what elevates "War" above those movies is its core sentiment: how a family finds its way home. That's also the strongest link to the Spielberg movie that seems its opposite number, 1982's "gentle alien," "E.T."

Yet, though "War of the Worlds" is technically remarkable on almost every level -- including Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, John Williams' score, Rick Carter's production design and, especially, Dennis Muren's effects (including some top-of-the-line death rays) and Michael Kahn's nonpareil editing -- the movie squanders a golden opportunity to give us something deeper and richer.

Spielberg's "War" has its serious side: the broken-family theme and the Sept. 11 references (shots of white dust coating Ray's face and clothes echo the iconic photos of those staggering away from the World Trade Center). But this is a story that could have resonated and revealed our culture in ways similar to Wells' marvelous original 1898 novel and Orson Welles' classically terrifying 1938 radio drama. The new "War" doesn't really expand our vision beyond the Earth and across the universe as Wells did. Nor does it brilliantly parody contemporary media and politics, like the young, feisty Orson Welles.

Update of Pal's

Instead, Spielberg seems more interested in crafting the best possible update of the second major adaptation of "War": Hungarian puppeteer-producer George Pal's technically ingenious, entertaining but shamelessly kitschy Cold War 1953 "War" -- a film more appropriate these days for kids and people who want to feel like kids. Spielberg hardly references Welles' version at all, but he crams his movie with allusions to Pal's, including cameos by both its stars, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.

It's as if Spielberg had set aside many of his post-"Schindler's List" ambitions and decided simply to exploit his technical genius, make a lot of money and revisit the past -- of his own "Duel," "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," as well as Pal's "War" -- rather than risk the box office disappointment he had with his great, under-appreciated sci-fi adventure "A.I."

Why, for instance, does he choose to omit from the early part of "War" those two keystones of modern American culture -- the cell phone and round-the-clock TV and radio news? You'd think both would be a crucial part of any attempt at a modern "War of the Worlds," especially since pastiche news reports were the terrifying gimmick that enabled Welles to spook a nation with his radio "War."

Here, writers and director contrive a universal electrical breakdown to explain Ray's isolation and they illustrate the media collapse with one lone TV crew wandering like scavengers. But it all seems strained. The thematic justification -- that we're being shown a world from Ray's restricted view, with the modern verities crippled or destroyed -- isn't very convincing either. That idea would be more effective if the cell phones and TV news stations were still going full blast at first and only gradually faded out.

But maybe then they'd let in more of the outside world than Spielberg wants. In his eagerness to isolate Ray and his kids, Spielberg and his writers throw away a brilliant chance to build up suspense and economically convey the mounting social dissolution of the world outside. Midway through, I began to wonder whether if this wasn't deliberate, even a bit Oedipal: whether Spielberg hadn't made some of these choices to sever all possible links with the Welles version and avoid any comparisons..

Management point of view

Maybe Spielberg was planning it all more like a studio head and less like a maverick filmmaker. It's unfair to blame him for not making a different movie from this one -- just as it's unfair to critically dismiss this "War of the Worlds," as some will, because it's a big-bucks project that follows surefire formulas and because Cruise is a superstar of movies, tabloids and weird TV stunts. That doesn't matter; the movie works on its own terms. As a horror-adventure science fiction spectacular, it delivers the goods. But it's not the world-beater it could have been; Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" definitely wins its battle, but not the war.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for frightening sequences of violence and disturbing images).

mwilmington@tribune.com

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Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Josh Friedman, David Koepp; photographed by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; production designed by Rick Carter; senior visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren; music by John Williams; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson. A Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:58.

Ray Ferrier - Tom Cruise

Rachel Ferrier - Dakota Fanning

Harlan Ogilvy - Tim Robbins

Mary Ann - Miranda Otto

Robbie Ferrier - Justin Chatwin

Vincent - Rick Gonzales

Narrator - Morgan Freeman

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