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Harrowing War of the Worlds driven by real-life fears

ALIEN NATION: Tim Robbins (background) and Tom Cruise have different ideas on how to confront an otherworldly threat in War of the Worlds
  • ALIEN NATION: Tim Robbins (background) and Tom Cruise have different ideas on how to confront an otherworldly threat in War of the Worlds
Back in 1996, shortly after the sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day was released, Steven Spielberg stated that, while he enjoyed the movie, he could never make a film that portrayed extra-terrestrials in such a negative light. His declaration could hardly have come as a surprise to anyone; after all, Spielberg is the man responsible for both E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, two of the most benevolent alien flicks ever made.

Yet here we are almost a decade later, and here's Spielberg with his name attached to War of the Worlds (*** out of four), an apocalyptic opus that's as brutal and unrelenting as any sci-fi film I've ever seen. The more cynical among us might assume that Spielberg was merely blowing smoke back in the day, and that his instincts (which, given his standing as the most successful filmmaker in history, must be pretty darn sharp) told him that an evil alien picture would be a guaranteed money machine. Yet if one believes his comments in interviews (and I do), what appeared to be a flip-flop is instead a natural reaction to the events of 9/11.

It's not hard to swallow that reason. In fact, based on our collective mindset following the tragedy, it seems perfectly logical that a man who has provided several of the greatest popcorn entertainments of the past 30 years would now elect to hand us a popcorn picture with a difference — this one's been generously sprinkled with salt, causing a stinging sensation as it rubs against the open wound of our national psyche. Spielberg has crafted War of the Worlds as a fantasy film for a new age, a motion picture that, in the same manner as his excellent 2002 Minority Report, views science fiction not as a source of endless wonder and delight but as a realm fraught with cautionary tales about the erosion of personal freedoms and our sense of despair in an increasingly hostile world. Whether this new film represents moviemaking at its most opportunistic — using real-life atrocities as the engine for a summer blockbuster — or at its most empathic — tapping into the culture in a way that could help soothe the national spirit — will be up to each moviegoer to decide, but there's no denying the film's potency as a harrowing thrill ride.

War of the Worlds was penned by H.G. Wells in 1898, and since then, it's served as the basis for Orson Welles' legendary 1938 radio broadcast (which caused a panic when listeners thought they were hearing an actual news broadcast of a Martian invasion) and George Pal's 1953 film version, a solid adaptation which earned an Oscar for its visual effects. The 50s flick Americanized and updated Wells' British yarn, and this new take follows its lead. Kicking off in New Jersey, the story centers around Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a dockworker and deadbeat dad who agrees to look after his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and little daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) while his ex-wife (Mirando Otto) travels to Boston to visit her folks.

After several scenes of family dysfunction, most involving tense standoffs between Ray and Robbie, the story proper gets under way once Ray and his neighbors notice there's something freaky going on with the weather. Newscasts reveal that it's a global phenomenon, yet nobody has any answers until gargantuan war machines suddenly appear on the scene and start incinerating everyone in sight. Besting the cat by apparently being blessed with 10 lives, Ray miraculously avoids the aliens' deadly beams time and again; with his children in tow, he decides to head for Boston, where his ex-wife will presumably do a better job looking after the kids.

But as Ray and his young charges hit the congested highways, they realize the alien invaders are launching a full-scale assault on mankind, with the intention of wiping out the population. The military's weapons prove to be ineffectual and, as is so often the case when things get hairy, mob mentality takes over, leading to human-on-human crime. Ray temporarily finds refuge in a fortified basement, but the unbalanced guy living there (Tim Robbins) turns out to be a threat of a different nature.

And the threats keep on coming. Specifically, the specter of 9/11 hangs over the entire film: It's impossible to watch scenes of mass destruction (including the downing of an airplane) and not wince at the evocation of the recent past. Yet War of the Worlds turns out to be as reminiscent of past Spielberg productions as much as anything based in the real world. These sequences range from the playful (an alien's inspection of a bicycle brings to mind E.T.) to the profound (the human ashes that float through the air following an alien attack recall the smoky deathhouses of Schindler's List's concentration camp). Nods to Jurassic Park and Close Encounters also make appearances, and the theme of a family sticking together through adversity has been a Spielberg specialty dating back to The Sugarland Express.

War of the Worlds is merciless in its methods, which is why it's such a shock when the movie turns all warm and fuzzy for its denouement. Part of the problem rests with Wells: The clever conclusion of the novel doesn't make for the most visually compelling movie climax (it was a problem in the 1953 version, too). Yet the ultimate sin arrives courtesy of Spielberg and scripters Josh Friedman and David Koepp. In an earlier sequence, Ray commits a shocking act (lifted from Wells' book), and bravo to Spielberg for temporarily risking audience withdrawal by not sugarcoating the moment. But rather than carry the movie's darker impulses to the very end, he wraps everything up with a finale that's not only shameless but, in the context of the story, illogical as well. It's a bummer of a closer, completely at odds with the take-no-prisoners approach of the rest of the picture.

To say that the special effects are superb might not seem like much of a compliment to a big-budget extravaganza, but coming from me, it's among the highest praise imaginable. I'm hardly a cheerleader for modern special effects — most of the highly lauded CGI projects look cheesy to me, especially where animals or crowd scenes are involved — but the FX work on display here is staggering. The Industrial Light & Magic unit, working under the supervision of eight-time Oscar winner Dennis Muren, delivers the goods, and the sound department likewise seems assured of an Oscar nomination, particularly for the theater-rumbling horn blasts the aliens employ whenever their appetite for destruction needs to be sated.

The summer movie season is traditionally the period when Hollywood releases its sunny no-brainers, uplifting adventures made for shiny, happy people. It's a telling sign of these troubled times that the heavyweights in this year's crop — Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins and now War of the Worlds — are brooding tales full of darkness, disillusionment and death. If this trend continues, audiences seeking escapist fluff may have to count on unlikely sources to provide it. How does a David Cronenberg big-screen adaptation of Petticoat Junction grab ya?

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