Director Steven Spielberg would like to remind you of your own mortality.
By ROBERT W. BUTLER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Feeling pretty cocky about residing at the top of the food chain?
A couple of hours with "War of the Worlds" should put things in perspective.
There's one jaw-dropping scene in Steven Spielberg's new thrill-ride-with-an-agenda: Dozens of massive metal tripod fighting machines (they look like ambulatory water towers, with a bit of squid thrown in) serenely move through the ruins of a city, methodically blasting away with their heat rays at thousands of fleeing, screaming humans whose destiny is to end up in an alien milkshake.
After just a few millennia of calling the shots here on Planet Earth, humanity has been reduced to the status of cattle on a feed lot. If that's not very comforting -- well, neither H.G. Wells, on whose century-old novel the film is based, nor director Spielberg care if you're comfortable. They want to shake us up, rub our noses in our own mortality.
And this film does just that. Pretty cool for a summer popcorn flick.
"War's" first 15 minutes introduce us to Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), operator of a crane on the New Jersey docks. Ray is a guy's guy who keeps a dismantled car engine on the dining room table. As the film begins he's agreed to take care of his two kids -- the teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and grade schooler Rachel (Dakota Fanning) -- while his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her new husband take a trip to Boston.
It immediately becomes clear that little Rachel knows more about parenting than the feckless Ray. (Later the terrified girl will ask her father to sing a comforting lullaby; all Ray can come up with is "Little Deuce Coupe.") Robbie sees his father as an unwelcome interloper on their otherwise normal lives.
Then the aliens arrive, literally riding bolts of lightening deep into the ground where huge fighting machines have lain buried since before the rise of man. After millions of years in cold storage, these massive metal monsters rear up, their sizzling heat rays vaporizing human flesh so quickly that people disappear in a puff of steam and their now-empty clothes fill the air like confetti.
Though it's set 100 years later than Wells' novel, this new "War" is actually quite faithful to the printed page. Screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp tinker with some details, but two of the book's most memorable scenes -- the destruction of refugee-filled ships by the invaders and a long, nail-biting sequence that finds our protagonists hiding in the cellar of a ruined house while just outside the aliens set up shop -- are delivered with remarkable fidelity.
Best of all the film avoids a human victory a la "Independence Day."
On the run
For most of its running time, "War of the Worlds" is an escape movie, with Ray and his kids on the move in a frantic effort to avoid the slaughter around them. Actually, this is an improvement over Wells, who gave us a solitary narrator and virtually no personal interaction with other characters.
Once again indulging his proclivity for broken families and parent-child relationships, Spielberg presents Cruise with his most openly emotional role in ages, and the star makes the most of it. Even as the world is being lost to humans, he's discovering the depth of his paternal feelings, his determination that his children come through all this -- even if it means allowing himself to be captured by the Martians (or whatever they are ... the movie isn't specific).
Even so, he's eclipsed by young Miss Fanning, whose screams of pure unadulterated terror and blank, traumatized eyes will haunt many a moviegoer's dreams. Is there anything this kid can't do?
And Tim Robbins has a juicy role as a survivalist/rebel who shares a basement hideout with the Ferriers and nearly brings ruin on them all. (A recurring theme in the film is that even faced with eradication of our species, humans still will fight with one another.)
But the real stars of this movie are the special effects guys -- who make the alien machines both beautiful and terrifying (I'd give an Oscar to the sound guy who devised the tripods' eerie, bone-rattling battle cry) -- and Spielberg, a master storyteller working near the top of his form.
This is one genuinely scary, disturbing movie.