Steven Spielberg puts on an awesome display of movie-making might in War of the Worlds, his cinematic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel that got the whole critters-from-outer-space thing going a little over a hundred years ago. Working at the height of his considerable powers, the man who once dropped E.T. in our laps puts us through an alien invasion that makes all the other alien invasions look like a visit from the in-laws. But he's also managed to keep the focus on a single family ' an immature father (Tom Cruise), his teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and his bizarrely mature daughter (Dakota Fanning) ' that tries to pull together while the rest of the planet is being systematically destroyed. Hardly a fair fight, the movie shouldn't be called War of the Worlds. It should be called Run for Your Lives.
That's what most of the movie consists of, anyway ' people fleeing as these three-legged behemoths reduce everything in sight to rubble. Ignoring the lesson he learned in Jaws, Spielberg shows us the creatures early and often in War of the Worlds, but it doesn't seem to matter ' they're still terrifying. Correction: The movie itself is still terrifying, a master class in thrills-and-chills filmmaking. It opens on a loading dock in New Jersey, where Cruise's Ray is working the controls on a crane that looks like it could give one of the alien war-machines a run for its money. And it's amazing how quickly Spielberg has us in the palm of his hand, setting the scene with deft strokes of his brush and establishing the family dynamic with sarcastic wit. The kids have been dropped off at Dad's for the weekend, and it's the last place in the world they want to be.
Then the sky darkens and strokes of lightning start flipping the on-off switches to devices that have been planted beneath the earth's surface for millions of years. In a sequence that just might make the cut for Spielberg's career-highlights reel, Ray and a crowd of onlookers look on as this humongous, insectoid/reptilian thing emerges from a downtown intersection, its birth pangs measurable on the Richter scale. And that's just the first in a series of set pieces that adds up to one hell of a roller-coaster ride. One could argue that the movie is all roller coaster, that Spielberg and his scriptwriters, Josh Friedman and David Koepp, haven't come up with much of a story beyond Deadbeat Dad Surprised How Far He'll Go to Save His Own Children. Alternatively, one can strap on one's seatbelt and enjoy the ride.
The family storyline may not develop very much, but it nevertheless registers, thanks to Cruise, who's just the right age ' and temperament ' to play a kid with kids of his own. When Fanning's Rachel asks Ray to sing her a lullaby and he tearfully realizes that he doesn't know any lullabies, this $120 million entertainment machine is suddenly revealed to have a heart. Still, it's going to be remembered for the dispassionate ruthlessness with which the aliens go about the business of annihilating our dear small planet. "Is it the terrorists?" Rachel asks when things start to go bad. You don't have to be a member of al Qaida to make that connection. But Spielberg ' a meaner, harsher Spielberg than the kinder, gentler one we're used to ' may have nothing more on his mind than scaring the bejesus out of us. If so, mission accomplished.