Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is huge and scary, moving and funny—another capper to a career that seems like an unending succession of captivations. The movie has all the wonder and speedy panache of E.T. and Jaws, yet it also contains the nuanced expressions of parental concern and love—of fatherly devotion—that made Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Catch Me If You Can, and Minority Report affecting.
Borrowing its title from H. G. Wells’s novel, this updated version of War of the Worlds tells the story of Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier, a working-class screwup whose leather-jacketed, cock-of-the-walk selfishness makes it easy to understand why his wife (Miranda Otto) left him for another, meeker fellow. One of the constant pleasures of Spielberg’s work is the way he can sketch in the daily pleasures, annoyances, and complications of family life, and so we relax and settle into the opening moments of the movie, enjoying the way Ray spars with his two kids, visiting for the weekend. Little-sprout Rachel (the achingly vulnerable Dakota Fanning) dresses like a skinny Rainbow Brite doll; she’s more fond of Ray than is her sullen teenage brother, Robbie (glowering Justin Chatwin), who long ago saw through Ray’s transparent grins and feeble jokes to the hollow soul of the man inside. There’s a great moment early on when Ray forces Robbie to play catch with him and then heaves the hardball past his son’s head, crashing it through one of Ray’s windows. Spielberg shoots a quick, funny reaction shot from the window’s point of view, revealing a startled, annoyed Cruise.
Spielberg will later echo that shot with one of a terrorized Dakota Fanning being stared at through the broken mechanical “eye” of an alien spy-machine. For by then, war has broken loose on the world: Huge destruction-mechanisms have heaved up from the Earth, where they were buried millions of years ago, and slithery extraterrestrials zap, stomp, and maim people all over the globe. Why? Spielberg offers no overt explanation, which is smart, because any backstory here would, like most science-fiction-movie plots, sound silly, and all we want is to witness the horrific malevolence of these menaces, to cringe and then exult as Cruise forges a bond with his kids, doing his best to keep them safe.
We bring to a movie everything we know about its stars, and in recent weeks, the danger to Spielberg’s creation was that the publicity surrounding Tom Cruise’s media and romantic antics was going to prevent audiences from getting involved in his performance. At the show I attended, there were scattered titters the first time Tom’s Ray got a wild glint of anger in his eyes—it was too similar to the stare he’d fixed on Matt Lauer and Billy Bush. But very quickly that sort of audience self-consciousness seemed to disappear, for good reason: Cruise is superb here. He retains his perennial appeal as a boisterously physical actor (no sci-fi victim has ever run away from a giant creepy-crawly with such a determined spring, or turned on a dime to snatch up his frozen-with-fear child). But Cruise also adds necessary resonance to his portrayal of a father who has to race as quickly emotionally (in his heart and in his head) as he does with his legs to elude relentless predators.
With War of the Worlds, Spielberg has made the first serious post-9/11 sci-fi movie: the first in which it makes perfect sense for young Fanning’s character to yelp, the instant the invaders launch a lightning-bolt attack, “Is it the terrorists?” This is where the vague origins of War’s out-of-nowhere-yet-among-us-everywhere enemies are also useful as artistic metaphor. In the bravura scenes of people fleeing and being trapped, of them helpless and dying, War of the Worlds cannot help but remind us of recent history. The director also makes this timely theme dovetail with a timeless one, in which the American character is always tested in times of stress, and found profoundly heroic. Just as Spielberg can create a character as deeply ordinary as Ray and thrust greatness upon him, so can he create a summer popcorn movie that deserves a great and varied audience to appreciate his achievement.