U.S. Release Date: June 29, 2005
Distributor: Paramount
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp
Producer: Kathleen Kennedy, Paula Wagner (executive), Colin Wilson
Composer: John Williams
Cast: Amy Ryan, Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins
Running Time: 1 hour and 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images)

Spielberg's Remake is a Grisly Exploit
by Scott Holleran

Steven Spielberg's cinematic version of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel War of the Worlds—like other movies in his illustrious career—is big, thunderous and horrifying. He visualizes the book's theme that man is puny by eviscerating Western civilization. Having admitted his aim to recall the Islamic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, which he crudely exploits, Mr. Spielberg creates a nauseating movie, one that probably ought to be avoided by those who experienced the assault at close range.

Inducing horror with slow, deliberate action punctuated by dreamlike silence, Mr. Spielberg, an ace at evoking terror, from Duel to Jaws, takes his cue from that day's atrocity in lower Manhattan. His War of the Worlds is a smattering of the most awful pictures of our time: falling bodies, faces covered with human remains, missing person posters, downed passenger jet parts.

The perceptual-bound script spares Tom Cruise the need to do anything but well up occasionally. His divorced, dock-working dad takes the kids (Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning) for the weekend and a predictable set-up precedes New Jersey becoming a frying pan. The insolent teenager back talks and the precocious daughter whines. The childlike wonder of Mr. Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Melinda Dillon's toddler, memorably played by Cary Guffey, innocently drawn to the aliens, gives way to the childhood neuroses of a little girl (Fanning) with back pain and bags under her eyes. We're not in Indiana anymore.

An ominous cloud forms, lightning strikes, and half the neighborhood comes out to investigate the deafening sound, blinding light and shaking movement enveloping them. Placing Mr. Cruise and his neighbors on the cusp of awareness as they survey the calm before the carnage, the force is powerful—like Tyrannosaurus Rex's thumps in Jurassic Park—and a sense of dread swells. Once the enemy emerges, in another trivialization of the Sept. 11 attack, War of the Worlds slips into standard 1950's science fiction—metal monsters, silly action, no purpose—accompanied by a parade of grisly images.

After watching humans being vaporized by aliens, Mr. Cruise manages to hijack a minivan, grab the kids and split, stupidly heading for his ex-wife's house a gas tank away from where the aliens commenced zapping. The plot follows the squabbling family.

Dad learns more about the enemy—as fascinating as a housefly—and he functions as an automaton, activating neither a strategy nor a resistance. For what it's worth, Mr. Spielberg's reluctance to engage Mr. Cruise in action heroism suggests the Bush administration's incompetent response to 9/11: put America on homeland security lockdown, don't retaliate against the worst enemy states and issue bromides about helping others. Mr. Cruise's face is a familiar anchor for the first half, but once it's clear that he might as well be one of the Pod People, War slows to a trickle.

Son yearns to shoot back, Dad won't let him, and sister screams for most of the movie. The world has gone to hell, and this trio doesn't do much besides shriek, cry and watch corpses float down the river. Man is powerless, which is to say meaningless, and, as Morgan Freeman's narrative explains, he can be crushed like a bug by any random act of nature.

As Mr. Spielberg kills things off with a discharge of alien gunk, he dispenses with what was once his best asset: a sense of individuality, from Goldie Hawn's defiant mother in The Sugarland Express to Richard Dreyfuss as a doomed pilot in Always. His War of the Worlds is like a Norman Rockwell painting splattered with blood: throngs of average people in chronic fear, surrounded by dead bodies. Supposing this horror is realistic—these days, it's real enough—it is no less rotten to endure. Watching Tom Cruise wander the world and be pummeled with bodies is plenty agony without the message that man had it coming.

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