Burned-out buildings billow smoke into a sunless sky. Soot-stained victims, their faces frozen in shock, stagger into the streets and call out for loved ones. In the distance, screams and sirens pierce the air, only to be punctuated by some unknown rumbling. While War of the Worlds never directly references the 9/11 attacks, the unhinged fear and adrenaline of that day pulsate through every scene. The result is Steven Spielberg’s meanest and most visceral popcorn movie, a grand spectacle calibrated for the era of looking over our shoulders. Indeed, when the aliens attack, Dakota Fanning’s ten-year-old voice offers an instant shriek: “Is it the terrorists?!”
The film begins ominously, as Morgan Freeman’s narration creates an atmosphere of calm and steady dread. His soothing baritone hews to H.G. Wells’ source novel, outlining the ancient plan of an alien invasion. We then shift to the Everyman protagonist who will provide the film with its shifting emotional core: Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a blue collar screw-up who works at the Newark loading docks and spends his spare time fixing engines and swilling beer. He presents as an unrepentant deadbeat dad and disengaged husband. When his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) drops off the kids for a visit, Ray can barely hide his irritation.
His kids react to his detachment in very different ways. As Robbie (Justin Chadwick) is in his mid-teens, his resentment has had more time to dry into hard concrete. He openly mocks Ray and calls him by his given name. Rachel (Fanning) is a different story. She’s unnaturally intelligent and mature, but she still regards Ray’s flimsy behavior with sweet-natured naïveté. In the opening sequence, the kids are left to order takeout, while Ray plops in bed for a snooze. All in all, a pretty typical weekend at the Ferrier house.
Of course, it’s not meant to last. Ray wakes to find a mystery storm swelling over his neighborhood. The wind blows toward the clouds, and the lightning is unaccompanied by thunder. Ray ventures into the street for a closer look, only to find the asphalt and buildings being destroyed by some seismic underground force. As onlookers gather, a massive alien tripod lumbers out of the ground and begins vaporizing everything in its path. That means Ray has to do the Tom Cruise Sprint from the destruction and grab his kids before it’s too late.
The second act of the film echoes Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, as it shows a shattered family navigating a world newly in ruins. Spielberg avoids the temptation to zoom out; we see everything through the confused and frantic eyes of the Ferrier family. We only learn things when they do. This gives the film an urgency that holds for most of its runtime.
Most of describes most of War of the Worlds. Most of the performances are top-notch. Most of Spielberg’s directing choices are absolutely brilliant. This is world-class entertainment, mostly. All this adds up to a movie with a thin margin of error: Push the story a little in one direction, and you’ve got a legendary director at the top of his powers. Send it another way, and you’ve got an unforgivably expensive misfire. Most of the film falls in the former category.
Let’s cover that aspect first. For a man with nothing to prove, Spielberg stocks this movie with bravura shots that rank amongst his best. The initial alien attack is a jaw-dropping sequence, wherein much of the apocalypse is seen from ground-level, as if we in the audience are also bewildered victims. In one arresting bit, a man is dusted into oblivion, and his camcorder drops to the pavement. Spielberg goes close on its LCD viewfinder, where we see more of the carnage. The message of the moment couldn’t be more frightening: We now live in a world with the technology to document our own sudden deaths.
Another masterful sequence occurs when the Ferriers commandeer a minivan and steer it through a freeway of dead cars. Spielberg presents this frantic exodus in one continuous, 360-degree take that keeps us gripped to the action. No doubt much of this is a work of CGI, but the special effects seem invisible. Like his best work, Spielberg uses technical mastery to pull us into the story.
On the subject of technical mastery, an underrated aspect to Spielberg’s filmmaking finesse is his impeccable taste in collaborators. All the usual Oscar-level talent is on board here: John Williams provides an eerie, atmospheric score that occasionally reaches for Bernard Hermann’s screeching strings. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski fills the color palate with browns and grays, ensuring the end of everything is a bleak affair. (He does, however, infuse the film with moments of morbid magnificence, as when the dancing sunlight of a shimmering stream gives way to floating bodies.) Editor Michael Kahn, probably the most unheralded of the director’s cohorts, keeps the movie lean and propulsive.
All that genius serves a raft of good performances. Fanning played smart better than just about any other child actor, and she does a great job with a little girl who’s had to grow up too fast. Likewise, Chatwick nails the edgy teen whose default mode is pissed off. Both actors give this massive blockbuster a much-needed humanity. Again, Spielberg’s eye for talent is spot-on.
Unfortunately, that also brings us to film’s downsides. We start with Cruise, who is totally miscast in the lead role, as it’s written. As a personality, Cruise has the wild-eyed commitment of a man who goes all-in on everything, all the time, which makes him all wrong for a jerk-off dad. An actor like Collin Farrell or Sean Penn–who could sleepily scratch their balls and chug a warm beer, and really mean it–would be perfect for the part. I never bought Cruise’s don’t-give-a-shit routine–a huge flaw for the movie as a whole.
You know somebody else who could pull off the lazy divorcé vibe? Tim Robbins. Too bad the movie relegates him to a strange second-act cameo. His character’s function is to dump a cold bucket of weird all over the story, and he does this a little too well. This off-putting little section kills at least some of the movie’s momentum.
The bad news is that a lot of that momentum was headed out, anyway. Worlds delivers a conclusion that couldn’t be more ho-hum. A good deal of that blame goes to screenwriter David Koepp, known for his mechanical work on Spielberg’s other blockbusters (The Lost World, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). His script is wholly average, under-developing the characters and removing the protagonist from the film’s final action. Great directing and acting may elevate the film, but they can’t completely conceal Koepp’s subpar writing.
This wide range of pros and cons is why I wanted to revisit this film. On first watch, I found it a big disappointment, an empty, profitable epic. Now, I see it from the rearview mirror with the rest of Spielberg’s massive filmography. After all, War of the Worlds came from the man who gave us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Those films conveyed that we not alone, and there’s nothing to fear. This movie is drenched in fear, blood, and exhaustion, making it the perfect encapsulation of a post-9/11 world. War of the Worlds may have too many flaws to be a great film, but it does have flashes of being a really good one.