Blown away

War of the Worlds

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, freaking out.

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, freaking out.

Rated 5.0

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is one scary bastard. This is a movie that starts taunting you soon after its beginning, and it never stops. Once the “tripods” of H.G. Wells’ seminal science-fiction story start zapping anything that moves, the film’s vibe is that of utter doom, and it’s downright mean—even vicious. This is the harshest, most terrifying film in Spielberg’s canon, and this is the guy who made Jaws.

When irresponsible divorced dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) invites his little girl, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), into the backyard to take in an electrical storm, he thinks it’s just a dramatic start to a few restful days with his son (Justin Chatwin) and daughter. He makes a few observations ("The wind is blowing toward the storm") and tells his kid to quit worrying, stay put and enjoy the show. When the lightning strikes hit too close to home, Ray winds up under the table cowering with Rachel, and we’re right there with them.

The lights go out, and Ray ventures into town for supplies and answers. He doesn’t get any milk for the kids, but instead gets a startling revelation as to what’s going on with the freak lightning strikes. Something waiting under the Earth’s surface has risen up, and it has a deep contempt for the human race.

This isn’t one of those films in which aliens land and blow up landmarks and humanity comes together to fight a common foe. When laser beams start vaporizing targets, everybody scatters without a clue how to fend for themselves. The enemy is far too daunting, and defeating it is not an option. The only option is to hide.

Spielberg obviously has grown much more cynical since 9/11. The alien carnage, as well as the human reactions to it, is reminiscent of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., with crowds fleeing for their lives from crumbling skyscrapers. Clothes fall from the sky like office papers floating to the ground after the twin towers were lost. It’s startling imagery for a summer blockbuster, liable to leave many shaken.

The massive alien tripods that roam the landscape do have one thing in common with the mother ship from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They emit a foghorn-like blast that sounds similar to the mother ship’s glass-shattering bass notes. That’s it for the comparisons to other Spielberg forays into extraterrestrial life. The aliens of this film are pure bad, and they’re all about killing.

Cruise plays a terrific, imperfect hero. His Ray manages to escape impossible situations not so much because of ingenuity, but because of pure luck. He brings a reality to a role that many actors would’ve played with one dimension. It’s the best acting work of his career. With Fanning, Spielberg manages to do what he did with Haley Joel Osment in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence: He reveals the amazing talents within a child actor whom most directors have portrayed as too precocious. Fanning delivers a child’s performance unrivaled in recent years.

The film will draw some comparisons to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. That movie borrowed a lot from the Wells classic, and the protagonists in both pictures spend a lot of time hiding out in basements. This film far outclasses Signs, and pretty much any film in the sci-fi alien genre. Spielberg has made yet another classic.

This has been a great summer. First, a rousing installment of Star Wars, then the best Batman movie yet and now War of the Worlds. With this film, Spielberg reclaims the mantle of Summer Movie King. He also will manage to scare a lot of people to death, exactly what an alien-invasion movie should do. Be prepared for long intervals of holding your breath, because this is the real deal.