By Brian Rentschler
Short version: The visual effects are impressive and the crew does a technically competent job. However, the heart and warmth we have come to expect from Spielberg's films are missing. Has Spielberg already forgotten why he became one of Hollywood's most successful directors?
Before I really delve into the review, I want to lament the loss of the old Steven Spielberg, the one who gave us such classics as The Goonies, the Indiana Jones series and, of course, E.T. I remember watching A.I. a few years ago and expressing surprise at how bad it was. I still feel that way, but despite that, what really permeates throughout A.I. is a high dose of sentimentality, and yes, even some warmth at times. But since then, Spielberg movies have been almost entirely devoid of warmth. I thought Minority Report was a decent movie, but it had almost no warmth at all. Even Schindler's List had some warmth to it at times, but War of the Worlds is almost completely devoid of the heart and warmth we have come to expect from Spielberg's movies. (Vic wrote an article about Spielberg's changing directorial style here.) Of course, Spielberg is free to do as he chooses, but he would do well to remember why he became one of the most successful directors in Hollywood.
Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a dock worker in New York City. He's cocky and has a chip on his shoulder (sound familiar?). He's also divorced with two kids, and he's not much of a father to them. His son Robbie (played by Justin Chatwin) basically won't even speak to him, and his daughter Rachel (played by Dakota Fanning) is growing more estranged from him every day. Ray's ex-wife Mary Ann (played by Miranda Otto) has married a rich guy named Tim (played by David Alan Basche), which only adds to the stress a working-class guy like Ray must feel. Long story short, this family puts the "fun" in dysfunctional.
Not long after Mary Ann drops the kids off at Ray's house for a visit, strange things start happening. The sky becomes very overcast, and a fierce wind starts blowing towards a big hole in the sky. Shortly after that, a series of lightning knocks out pretty much anything electrical in the area (except a few choice objects of the filmmakers' choosing — bah!). Wanting to find out what happened, Ray heads down to where the lightning struck. As it turns out, all the lightning bolts hit the same location, causing a big crater in the road. The crowd gathering around the crater doesn't have to wait long to see some action, though, because a huge alien vessel with three legs (henceforth called a tripod) pops out of the ground. Despite their fear at the fact that several city blocks have already been destroyed, the crowd's mentality is still one of curiosity, at least until the tripod starts shooting a laser beam at everyone in sight, instantly cremating them (but not their clothes, oddly enough). Ray immediately high-tails it back home, just barely avoiding the laser beams on several occasions. He quickly has his kids pack whatever they can, and since Ray knows where a working vehicle can be found (of course), they head for Boston to find Mary Ann and Tim.
Of course, as you might guess, the trip to Boston doesn't go exactly as planned, and they end up losing the vehicle because when you have the only working vehicle in New York City, people tend to get a little envious. They end up trying other methods to reach their destination, primarily walking and the ferry, all of which put them in harm's way because it turns out that there are quite a few tripods in quite a few locations throughout Earth. The vast majority of the movie features Ray and his kids trying to avoid being killed by the aliens. There are a few scenes where they hide out, but most of the time they are running for their lives. There are so many questions throughout this movie. Will Ray and his kids survive? Will humanity be able to defeat the powerful aliens, and will it somehow involve Ray? Will the audience groan in disbelief at an ending that feels like it was pulled right out of thin air?
The technical aspects of this film are very well done. The special effects are great, and most of the actors did fine jobs. I didn't really like Dakota Fanning's portrayal of Rachel. It seemed like half the time she was wise beyond her years, while the other half she was screaming her head off. I'm certainly no expert on what a ten-year-old should act like, but somehow I thought it should be more consistent. It's not all Dakota Fanning's fault, primarily because many of her mannerisms were script-driven. Tom Cruise does an admirable job of acting; you can always tell he works hard, and I see that as a good thing. He also does a good job of integrating one-liners into his scenes without making them seem cheesy or out of place.
So is the movie worth seeing? That depends on what you're expecting. If you're expecting to walk out of the theater with a big grin on your face while shouting, "That was AWESOME!" this movie won't fit the bill. It's too dark, somewhat depressing and very bloody and violent. (The PG-13 rating is well-deserved, so please do the little ones a favor and leave them at home.) If you're after great special effects and a high adrenaline rush and you don't mind the fact that the storyline takes a back seat, by all means go and see it. To be honest, this movie is better than most of the dreck coming out of Hollywood these days. The only problem is, considering the high caliber of talent behind the camera (and in front of it), I was expecting quite a bit more.