Now, half a century later, with awards and profits beyond counting behind him, Spielberg has kept faith with the boy he was. With "War of the Worlds" he has made what is arguably one of the best 1950s science fiction films ever, and that is not a backhanded compliment.
While Spielberg has said in interviews that his focus in this film is depicting an ordinary guy and his children coping with an alien onslaught, in some ways the family dynamic is the weakest link in the story. Even with Tom Cruise as what the press material delicately calls a "less-than-perfect father," the remarkable Dakota Fanning as his wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Justin Chatwin as his inevitably surly teenage son and Miranda Otto as his remarried ex-wife, what we come away with is a sense of the power of evil, not the strength of good.
This is due in large part to the potent nature of the underlying material adapted by screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp: the celebrated H.G. Wells novel that has caused a sensation each of the previous three times it's been put before the public.
When "The War of the Worlds" appeared in print in Britain in 1898, one of a series of groundbreaking science fiction novels including "The Time Machine" and "The Invisible Man" that Wells was turning out on a regular basis, its idea of aliens from Mars attempting a hostile takeover of the planet was startling in its newness.
When Orson Welles did a radio dramatization of the story on the night before Halloween in 1938, a genuine panic shook the nation, with one individual, the New York Times reported, insisting to a phone caller "the world is coming to an end and I have a lot to do." And when George Pal produced a 1953 version of the tale, the film was striking enough to get a trio of Oscar nominations and win one for special effects.
The irresistibility of the concept — at one time reportedly everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Sergei Eisenstein considered doing adaptations — and the keenness of execution aside, the same two factors led to the success of each of those versions, factors that combine one more time to make Spielberg's rendering as potent as it is.
All of these "Wars" have had the advantage of appearing at uncannily fraught moments in world history, striking a chord with a citizenry already primed to be unnerved. The original novel appeared when Britain feared an invasion from Germany, the Welles broadcast on the cusp of World War II, the Pal film during the Cold War. More than that, each version has had the additional plus of complete plausibility, of seeming like something that could be actually happening. Wells himself was keenly aware of his story's "attempt to keep everything within the bounds of possibility ... that from first to last there is nothing in it that is impossible."
With the specter of terrorism, the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea, Iran and who knows who else, not to mention the invasion of Iraq (which the film takes a veiled swipe at), we certainly live in perilous times. Spielberg's "War" is a perfect fit for our paranoid, potentially apocalyptic age, a film that considers the possibility, however obliquely, that the world as we know it could end.
It's a tribute to the perspicacity of Wells that the voice-over Morgan Freeman reads to open the film comes almost word for word from the opening of the 1898 novel. "No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century," Freeman reads with impeccable iciness, "that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own.... An intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes."
With this blood-chilling introduction out of the way, "War of the Worlds" (the film has lopped off the novel's initial "The" as well as all references to Mars) pulls back to introduce us to our protagonists: Cruise's parenting-challenged Ray Ferrier, Fanning as young Rachel, Chatwin as teen Robbie. A blue-collar kind of guy's guy who works on the Jersey docks, Newark resident Ray has to watch his kids for a few days while his ex (Otto) and her husband go off on a trip to which children are definitely not invited. It turns out to be one heck of a weekend.
Working, as he has on many films, with Industrial Light & Magic's senior visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, an eight-time Oscar winner, Spielberg makes impeccable use of special effects to make the pure fantasy of an alien invasion more believable than one would think possible.
This starts with the mechanics of dread, the appearance of natural phenomena like lightning strikes in decidedly unnatural combinations. Then the terrifying alien war machines, the 200-foot-tall tripods, appear, looking so much like the book's vision they are almost identical to Edward Gorey's just-reprinted cover art for an edition of the novel he illustrated more than 40 years ago.
Spielberg is at his best showing us the unimaginable damage these aliens do, from vaporizing people to destroying infrastructure. His effects are the opposite of showy — they aspire to be ordinary by taking place almost in the background, by being horrors we sometimes feel we are spying out of the corner of our eye. Collaborating with his veteran crew, including editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and production designer Rick Carter, Spielberg (as he previously proved with "Saving Private Ryan") has a way of making these indescribable nightmares both realistic and compelling.
How helpful the "War of the Worlds" protagonists are in this endeavor is more of an open question. Tom Cruise clearly knows how to hold the screen, and the film is better for that, but he's so unstoppably charismatic we never fear for him no matter what the aliens are doing, just as we never believe that deep down he's as bad a dad as the film wants us to think.
His relationship with son Robbie is as much a trial to us as it is to the two of them, an exercise in hackneyed tedium that repeats the clichés of dysfunctional adolescence that have deadened more movies than anyone can count. It gets so bad there are moments when it seems the aliens staged the whole invasion just to give sullen Robbie a chance to prove himself to his obdurate dad.
Dakota Fanning, who has held the screen with such heavyweights as Denzel Washington, Sean Penn and Robert De Niro, is a different story. Pound for pound, as they say in the boxing game, she is as good an actress as we have today. Fanning has a gift for naturalness and empathy that makes her the perfect audience surrogate. Her look of horror as she faces terror out the back window of a car is the film's emblematic image, the one shot that makes us feel the nightmare in our bones.
When the aliens finally leave their tripods late in the film, they are sinister and repulsive, but they don't drop-dead terrify us the way the shark did in "Jaws." Spielberg is older now, less interested in juvenile jolts. Among the things that are the scariest in his current presentation are how thin the veneer of civilization is among human beings, how close to the surface panic and hysteria are in people like Tim Robbins' unnerved survivor Ogilvy. We are our own worst enemy as well as our only hope.
Steven Spielberg may actually have done his job in "War of the Worlds" better than he realizes. By showing us how fragile our world is, how imperiled we might well be from without and within, he raises almost against his will a most provocative question: Is the ultimate fantasy an invasion from outer space, or is it the survival of the human race?