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War of the Worlds is undeniably well-crafted and intense. Beyond that, there is room for honest disagreement about whether the story works on film, whether Tom Cruise is more of a presence or a distraction, whether John Williams’ music is overbearing or fitting, and a hundred other details.

The Human Story

Speilberg knows how to film panic in the streets
Speilberg knows how to film panic in the streets

Written for the screen by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, War of the Worlds stays remarkably close to H.G. Wells’ original story, considering a hundred years have passed and the setting is now the eastern United States. Wells’ book is a first-person account of the invasion from Mars. It is an episodic tale, without much internal coherence, except that our protagonist is vaguely trying to find his wife, who is at her mother’s. The ending is an anticlimactic bit of luck that our protagonist had nothing to do with.

Tom Cruise plays Ray, a dockworker in New York City. He’s divorced — his wife has remarried someone with money — and this weekend he has the kids. His son Robbie is on the cusp of adulthood, not yet allowed to drive, but as tall as his dad and rebellious as hell. He wears a Boston Red Sox cap, maybe just to piss off his dad, a true-blue Yankees fan.

His youngest is Rachel (Dakota Fanning). She’s probably ten, and she’s wise beyond her years. It’s a minor feat that Fanning and director Steven Spielberg manage to sell her precociousness. Just when you think a whole film with her insightful observations might be too much, the invaders come and her wisdom is replaced by her piercing screams.

Arrival

The invaders are unseen at first. There are strange weather patterns, lightning without thunder, and holes in the ground where the lightning has struck. There have been electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), which killed all electricity, batteries, and electronics.

In the first of many exciting science fiction scenes, Ray goes out to investigate. He finds himself at the front of a crowd (it happens a lot) investigating the hole left by the lightning at an intersection. The hole is small at first, but it grows and spreads. For minutes, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski show us cracking pavement, heaving ground, and curious and frightened onlookers. Finally, a giant machine bursts from the hole, gets its Earth legs, and starts blasting people and buildings with its heat ray.

In the book, our protagonist acquires a carriage under shady circumstances. Ray grabs himself a minivan that isn’t exactly his, one with a new solenoid and battery (the EMP damaged every car in the vicinity). So he sets off across the countryside, away from the invader and in search of his ex-wife.

Summer Action Movie

Like the book, the movie is episodic. There isn’t much of an arc to the story. It’s just Ray and his children trying to survive from one situation to the next. I suppose we do learn more and about the invaders as the movie progresses. And there is something of a reconciliation between father and kids, although the family strife felt more like a movie cliche than genuine character development.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like. This is a summer action movie, after all, more about special effects and edge-of-your-seat thrills than characters and drama.

Spielberg and his team are master filmmakers, and it’s a pleasure to see them work. Kaminski keeps the camera moving, almost gratuitously, but it’s still satisfying. The camera will float along a scene of wreckage and stop at a perfectly framed shot of Ray. Over and over we’ll see some amazing Steadicam shot that would be the highlight of some cheaper film, but Spielberg and Kaminski do it all the time.

The sound design, by Michael Babcock, is excellent, too. Did John Williams have a hand in it? Remember the five-note sequence from Close Encounters? The walking machines have their own klaxon in this film. It’s only two notes, but their texture and timbre are profundo, making War of the Worlds a sensory feast.

The thrills are very good too. The most harrowing moment is when Ray covers his daughter’s eyes to keep her from seeing something horrible. Spielberg makes it clear what’s going to happen, and then doesn’t show it. It’s a trick directors from bygone decades used to get past censors and ratings boards. Maybe Spielberg uses it for that purpose too (to keep the PG-13 rating), but it’s an effective, tense trick that made me squirm in my seat.

Spielberg is...

I have actually heard art-film patrons say that they hated Spielberg movies. It wasn’t clear that they had even seen anything of his since E.T. I think what happened is that Spielberg has become metonymous for blockbuster American studio films and has met with a backlash of pretentious film snobs. But as War of the Worlds shows, Spielberg is one of the best, most skilled directors working today.

Not everyone will like War of the Worlds. Maybe you’ll find the John Williams score overbearing, or the child in peril cloying, or Tom Cruise distracting. What you won’t find, however, is anything to complain about in the craft of filmmaking.