When Mars attacks

For War of the Worlds overdoing it is mostly a good thing

RISKY BUSINESS Tom Cruise surveys the damage after an airport lands on his house.

RISKY BUSINESS Tom Cruise surveys the damage after an airport lands on his house.

War of the Worlds
Starring Tom Cruise, Tim Robbins and Dakota Fanning. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Leave it to Spielberg to parse H. G. Wells’ apocalyptic novel about the near-destruction of mankind down to a study of a dysfunctional family getting its act together as the world collapses about it. Granted, if spectacle is all that you desire, then your wishes will be sated in a most satisfactory manner.

Enter Tom Cruise as the ultimate irresponsible father. We know he’s irresponsible because Spielberg spends the first 10 minutes of the film hammering away with illustrations of such: Bound by his pregnant ex-wife to watch over their two children for the weekend, he arrives late, then stands idly by as she lugs a suitcase up the stairs and into his house, where she finds a disassembled V-8 engine resting on his coffee table. There are only condiments in his fridge. And so on. And on. Finally, after serving her plot function, she heads off to Boston with her new husband to visit her parents. It’s not clear why she’s denying them the presence of their grandchildren.

The next day, a spectacular lightning storm fries every electrical circuit in the city, and soon after 20-story-high tripod death machines erupt from beneath the streets and promptly set about annihilating the populace with heat rays that reduces the flesh into nothing more than white powder, the clothing left fluttering in the wake. Cruise grabs the kids and stows them in the only working vehicle left and heads off to Boston.

Along the way they have an airport fall on the house they spend the night in and have a pretty action news reporter generously take time off from Armageddon to play a tape for Cruise that details the arrival of the ambiguously Martian invaders.

The cycle is in place as Cruise and family bicker for 10 minutes, the death machines show up to lay down some mayhem, Cruise and the kids escape for another 10 minutes until the next spectacular set-piece and everyone eventually arrives in Boston for the trademark Spielbergian group hug.

That’s not a spoiler because the man is incapable of killing of a sympathetic character in any of his suspense movies. This also leeches any possible suspense elements from same.

What we’re left with are shock-and-awe special effects, and here Spielberg more than satisfyingly delivers. While at times the CGI from ILM seems surprisingly shoddy (especially in depicting a disorganized flight of geese), for the most part the tripods and the devastation they inflict are skillfully rendered. If one walks in with an incurious mind, he or she will be richly rewarded.

Speaking of shock and awe, Spielberg weaves overt references to 9/11 into a tapestry that metaphorically alludes to the perspective of the Iraqi citizenry in the early days of the Iraq War, as continuous death from the sky fell upon them for reasons they couldn’t comprehend.

Bonus props for an amazing moment of pop-culture-eats-itself as proto-suicide bomber Cruise is sucked up into what is essentially a giant anus, hand grenades primed. Zoinks.

Special effects aside, the script is sloppily adapted from the source material and more than liberally borrows from the 1953 adaptation of same, with visual homages to other classic invasion flicks from the ‘50s, such as Invaders from Mars. Unfortunately, certain vignettes are overwritten, such as one involving Cruise and daughter (played by the preternatural Dakota Fanning) taking refuge in an embattled farmhouse occupied by a loopy militiaman (a puffy Tim Robbins) that is at least five minutes too long before it ends on a crudely executed note. And—the norm for Spielberg—the film could have easily (and more satisfyingly) ended five minutes before it does.

A word of warning to the parents: Despite being rated PG-13, this is grisly stuff—from images of fleeing multitudes being vaporized to the alien machines desanguinating shrieking humans and spraying their blood across the countryside to serve as fertilizer, this is potentially the seeds of nightmare for the youngsters.