“This is E.T. gone bad,” said Tom Cruise of Steven Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel as scripted by David Koepp (Panic Room) and Josh Friedman. Cruise’s quote certainly applies to Dakota Fanning’s pungent performance here as a negative reversal of Drew Barrymore’s character in E.T. Only there are a lot of other factors that contribute to this film’s inadequacy in the face of impressive sound and special effects that get upstaged by specious situations, a deviating performance by Cruise and collapsing plot points.
Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a blue-collar divorced father looking forward to spending a weekend of child custody with his young daughter Rachel (Fanning) and his teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) in his American flag-lined block of New Jersey row houses. Ray is a gear head who drives a muscle car and has a partially built engine sitting in his kitchen. He’s a guy who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he really is and for the first half-hour Cruise creates a suitably domestic version of a New Jersey dockworker living comfortably inside his skin.
Ray is unpretentious toward his disinterested son but dismissive of his daughter’s precocious tendencies that veer toward her mother’s upwardly mobile qualities. Ray’s ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) has traded up for a life in the suburbs with a shiny trophy husband and a brand new SUV. In short, Ray got the better end of the deal and relishes his bachelor lifestyle for all it’s worth.
A colossal swirling lightening storm kick starts the film’s combustible inciting incident as a giant three-legged alien spacecraft emerges from the ground beneath an intersection of streets in Ray’s Americana immigrant filled neighborhood. Spielberg tilts toward George Lucas’ idealistic territory of American Graffiti when Ray’s small town USA suffers the sudden alien invasion with a church serving as the initial target.
Ray exercises his right wing leanings by collecting his semiautomatic handgun with his children before stealing an SUV to take his kids to the imagined safety of their mother’s palatial suburban home. Somehow Ray is the only person manic enough to continue driving on a highway that is effectively blocked.
Ray’s good fortune for driving through barriers continues after a commercial airliner crashes in front of his ex-wife’s house. Once again the god otherwise known as Steven Spielberg provides a clear path for Ray to exit the disaster. Throughout these tragic episodes, Spielberg retains a hermetic seal on the violence and gore that contradicts the shock ride he guided in Saving Private Ryan.
Spielberg’s potent eschewing of a musical score comes to an obvious halt when the director gets around to directly addressing his career’s recurring theme of paternal resolution during a showdown between Ray and Robbie. Robbie has a knee-jerk inclination to team up with the U.S. military to battle against the impossibly strong alien foe. The scene takes place on a hill where Rachel waits by a nearby tree for her father’s return while tanks speed toward the fast approaching aliens.
We realize here that not only is Ray an ineffectual father, but that Tom Cruise has broken character from the blue-collar jock in the film’s beginning and morphed into an action movie star. By the time Ray and Rachel seek refuge from the blood-sucking aliens in a dank basement with Tim Robbins as a rifle-packing nutcase named Harlan Ogilvy, the movie devolves into a board game where every plot shift occurs with flashing neon signs. Robbins’ character is so poorly introduced and developed that his scenes come off as a mockery of humor rather than representative of the dark lines his character speaks.
War of the Worlds marks a collapse of power for Spielberg and Cruise. It’s the first Cruise film that doesn’t feature his personage on a poster, and it’s a Spielberg spectacle that scrapes where it should ascend. From a sonic and visual standpoint the movie is remarkable, but from a narrative perspective it never engages the audience with either the evil motivations of the aliens or with the moral foundation of their victims. This war of worlds is a deadlock. MTW