More than a century has passed since H.G. Wells wrote The War Of The Worlds, a science-fiction terrain previously unexplored -“ the invasion of earth by aliens from outer space. So powerful was the story that it resurfaces each time fear tops a national agenda.
Britain was antsy about the Germans in 1898 when the novel first appeared. In 1953, when Hollywood made a cinematic version, the US was up to its elbows in the Korean war and communist China occupied American minds.
Now it’s terrorism. No surprises then that references to September 11 are peppered throughout Steven Spielberg’s alien-invasion blockbuster. Yet Spielberg turns away from standard alien invasion fare which generally pits governments and the military against alien invaders, to show how an ordinary family experiences invasion.
Tom Cruise steps away from his super-spy/ hero mould to play Ray Ferrier, a divorced blue-collar dock worker whose failure as a father is certainly not lost on his surly teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and younger daughter Rachel. Nor is it lost on his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) who appears briefly and very pregnant.
As his rare stint of daddy duty begins, a freak electrical storm hits. Moments later, Ray sees the street outside shredded as a monstrous three-legged machine climbs out of the bitumen road.
While he doubts his parenting skills, Ray’s paternal instinct clicks in and he and the kids are out of there. And wow, isn’t Tom made of Teflon! When everyone within slingshot distance of a Tripod dies, Tom and his kids make it with just a few scratches and dust in their eyes. So much for ordinary.
Spielberg runs War Of The Worlds across three neatly packed acts that thematically explore invasion, flight and resistance. What if your home were invaded? he asks.
And while there’s no indication the film is meant as an anti-war message, it has that effect -“ primarily because the film is not about attacking aliens but about fleeing from them, protecting your family and hoping you’ll come through.
The vulnerability of children is also ever-present as Ray fruitlessly tries to protect his youngest child Rachel, played by 11-year-old acting phenomenon Dakota Fanning, from the rampant death and violence with lullabies and blindfolds.
Tim Robbins features as the trigger-happy Ogilvy who offers shelter in his cellar. Keen on revenge, Ogilvy becomes as much a threat to Ray and Rachel as the invaders.
Despite terrific tripod aliens that evoke industrial era machinery and Spielberg’s tight reign on dramatic tension, particularly during the sequences in Ogilvy’s cellar, War Of The Worlds falls way short of greatness.
Strong performances are deflated by the film’s resolution which, while true to the novel’s ending, seems an easy way out of the end of the world and maybe too twee for today’s post-September 11 audience.