No doubt about it: H.G. Wells's 1898 novel The War of the Worlds poses a number of challenges to a modern filmmaker, not least of which are the long shadows cast by Orson Welles's infamous, so-called "hoax broadcast" adaptation and the well-regarded Hollywood film from 1953 (produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin). The science-fiction classic veils a tricky allegory of British imperialism, and while Wells's stylistic choice of reportage allows for scary spectacle, it makes no other concessions to the conventional heroic narrative of a blockbuster film. But if anyone can squeeze a 21st-century event film out of Wells, it's director Steven Spielberg, right?
The problems begin with an indefinite protagonist. Wells's unnamed narrator is a writer who, despite his intellectually privileged background, proves to be an Everyman eyewitness: shot through with fear, more lucky than superheroic. In his radio play, Welles mostly dispenses with a protagonist, though the writer-director-performer eventually allows a Professor Pierson to adopt the narrative. The Pal film posits Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist designed to match, actively, the high-tech threat of the Martian invaders. At Spielberg's behest, screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp fashion their own presumable Everyman, working-class divorcé Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise).
When aliens begin to decimate New Jersey (an American resetting borrowed from Welles), Ferrier conveniently demonstrates just the right batch of street smarts to escape New Jersey with his freaked-out ten-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning) and erratic teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwick). The crisis-fueled setup of bonding a screw-up weekend dad to his kids is transparent deck-stacking, even for Spielberg, but I suppose eschewing background story entirely—as Wells does for maximum identification—would be deemed a waste of two highly paid screenwriters (the film's opening and closing narrations, read by Morgan Freeman, derive from Wells).
Anyway, the script is not so much a succession of scenes as a clothesline for spectacular action sequences. The emergence of the Tripods (giant mechanical conveyances for the aliens) puts a twist on Wells's conception of "the arrival" and brings out the vaporizing heat-rays in a big way. Here in the first act, Spielberg delivers the money scene, and though the wizards at ILM deliver impeccably detailed realism to each crackle of granite, each flurry of dust and smoke, one might also say that the intricately storyboarded sequences are designed to within an inch of their lives. It's thrilling, high-impact stuff that synthesizes a victim's-eye-view (harried movement and frantic glimpses) but nevertheless comes off as showy.
Spielberg's War of the Worlds delivers one indisputable scare that has nothing to do with aliens: a carjacking sequence that brings out the ugly side of humanity's survival instincts—the scene is so shocking and gripping as to make style disappear (the scene was intense in 1953, but here, it's a horrifying tour de force). A subsequent ferry sequence, expertly expanded from the novel, plays more typical notes of crowd-control panic, but its pitiless pace represents Spielberg at his most effective; that is, if you can ignore the sequence's shameless expedience in introducing and dismissing characters important to Ray. A third, land-based sequence strains to make sense of Robbie's irrational "what've you got?" rebellion (perhaps a liberal-minded metaphor for patriotic youth in wartime).
Through it all, Cruise is an iron-clad, movie-star anchor; though he and Spielberg conspire to play the initial family-in-crisis scenes for questionable laughs, Cruise ultimately earns his paycheck by fleshing out each of Ray's sweaty strategies. Cruise's sure-handed work goes a long way to holding together a script that's at times reminiscent of the much-lambasted The Day After Tomorrow. Wells held himself to a high standard of credibility (Welles obviously understood this best), and the novel is run through with brutal moral questioning, delivered with wisp-like subtlety. Spielberg wants to be grown up enough to deal maturely with the big questions, but his showman's instincts invariably pull him away like a child with a short attention span.
When the flight-or-fight combustion runs out of gas, War of the Worlds wanders into ersatz Rod Serling territory, but loses its way. A couple of head-scratching plot maneuvers leads Ray to the basement shelter of one Ogilvy (Tim Robbins, in clammy Mystic River mode). The name is borrowed, pointlessly, from one Wells character; the doomsaying attitude comes from another. "This is not a war," he insists. "This is an extermination." When his insanity threatens the continued existence of Ray's family, Ray finds himself with a Hobson's choice: the aliens or the madman. Ogilvy's basement also provides the setting for a long sequence that reprises a now-tired Spielberg trademark: the heroes hold their breath as they hide from the enemy (Jurassic Park's raptors and Minority Report's spidery seekers leap to mind).
Like Star Wars, Batman Begins, and Land of the Dead, War of the Worlds haunts audiences with 9/11 symbolism: a wall of "missing" posters, a plane crash, and people covered in the ash of devastation (a clever shift from Wells' symbolic industrial soot). The plane crash is the most pointed of these loaded images, and arguably only useful in pulling the punch of the film's implicit inverse allegory, as a critique of the frightful American destruction of innocent homes abroad. After all, as horrifying and destructive as they were, the 9/11 attacks were hardly a full-fledged invasion, but Spielberg hedges his symbolic bets, the better to give friendly rival (and bolder allegorist) George Lucas a run for his box-office receipts.
Brief, screwy, emotional arguments about martial response emblematize a distressing lack of coherence and narrative discipline on the part of the filmmakers, but it's the gutless ending that renders War of the Worlds most insulting to its audience—not the simple resolution of the war, which remains true to Wells, but the resolution of the family psychodrama. It's inane, but, worse, it's smug, rewarding Spielberg's now-good dad with a treat and trivializing the hell of war (watch, instead, in these waning moments, for Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the 1953 film).
From location scouting to finished product, the creation of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds took a mere ten months, about half the time usually afforded a film of this scale. Perhaps the mixed-bag result is an inevitable function of Hollywood haste, though the cutting-edge special effects remarkably show no sign of strain. Spielberg delivers moments of brilliance (the demented, Wizard of Oz-like image of Cruise walking through a door into an eerie landscape draped with red tentacles is one of many palpable images), and he shows a certain amount of restraint in playing by Wells's limited-perspective rules, but War of the Worlds lacks courageous constancy of tone and theme and, maddeningly, goes well out of its way to give its heroes nine lives. The director has all the mechanized ingenuity of one of those dazzling Tripods, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall.