War of the Worlds

For most of his career, Steven Spielberg refused to portray aliens as malevolent beings. They were always benign or friendly. Then 9/11 happened, and he reexamined his views on this. The result is War of the Worlds, based on the novel by H.G. Wells as well as the famous Orson Wells radio broadcast that caused panic along the Eastern seaboard. The story is a good choice in this newfound climate of paranoia - an evil presence attacks mercilessly and people are unable to do anything about it. Spielberg (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can) uses his considerable talents, and, for the first time relies on a lot of digital effects, to shift the story into the present.

The result is pretty impressive. There hasn't been this much wholesale destruction since Independence Day. Alien tripods devastate cities across the globe, incinerating humans with laser blasts and picking them up with metallic tentacles. They look like menacing robotic squids, slowly moving across the countryside. In order to make this epic story relatable, screenwriters David Koepp (Secret Window, Spider-Man) and Josh Friedman (Chain Reaction) do what any self-respecting screenwriters do; tell the story through the eyes of a particular onlooker. The honor goes to Tom Cruise (Collateral, The Last Samurai), fresh off of his PR freak out.

Cruise is Ray Ferrier, and the film quickly establishes him as not the best guy around. He's good at his job, but seems a bit lazy. His marriage failed, and he's not the greatest father to his children. He simply doesn't know how to handle them. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, Hide and Seek, In the Realms of the Unreal) looks up to him somewhat reluctantly, while his son Robbie (Justin Chatwick, Superbabies, Taking Lives) ignores him. The point of all this is to ground the story emotionally. Once everything begins happening, Ferrier needs to step up to the task of being a father. It allows people to watch him change from a bit of a jerk to somebody that people can admire. Nice effort, but it is a bit too blatant. War of the Worlds looks fantastic, but needs more emotional depth than this.

This is the largest weakness of the film. The Ferrier transformation is as easy to spot as one of the tripods. It is not enough to sustain the entire film, especially when the plot collapses into an underwhelming ending. The first half of the film is the best. Spielberg is at heart an entertainer, and he throws some great imagery and thrills onto the screen. Nobody has any clue what is happening. Spielberg reveals the hulking machines slowly, and when they finally appear on screen the effect is still impressive. He grabs the viewer and takes them for a ride through devastated cities and freeways full of abandoned cars and fleeing people. However, he cannot sustain the momentum, and without anything deeper to hold the film together, it rises to the level of entertainment, but doesn't go much further than that.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 57 minutes, Rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images.

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