Steven Spielberg, in the first hour or so of War of the Worlds, summons the apocalypse with all his genius for suspense and sadism. Yes, sadism. I’ve long felt that Spielberg has a lot of anger to work off — it’s come out in the oddest ways in some of his films — and here he gets to kill most of us off via tripod-riding aliens who squash millions of people as if they were less than ants. Knocking over buildings, flinging cars in the air, up-ending ferries, zapping screaming humans into ash, Spielberg is, make no mistake, having the time of his life. War of the Worlds differs from a callow destruct-a-thon like Independence Day in that the large-scale carnage, with catastrophe building on catastrophe, thrills as much as it hurts. This is really the first whack Spielberg has had at depicting mass destruction since 1941 over twenty-five years ago, and he shows all the summer-movie whippersnappers how it’s done. When the aliens emerge from the cracked asphalt of New Jersey and begin their brutal business, you can safely strap in for some of the most awe-inspiring work Spielberg has done in years.
The rest of War of the Worlds, though, is hit or miss. The problems, for some, may begin with Tom Cruise as the film’s default hero — Ray Ferrier, a divorced dad who never grew up. Spielberg’s portfolio is full of men like Ray, and they were more believable when smaller-scale actors like Richard Dreyfuss were playing them. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dreyfuss, playing an equally childlike father, gave off a schlumpy Everyman vibe, but with a manic gleam that kept you unsure what he was going to do. Certainly Spielberg wouldn’t find it in himself these days to give us a hero who leaves his wife and kids behind, as Dreyfuss did; and Tom Cruise is not the sort of actor who makes you nervous in that way, at least not in this kind of role. Cruise hurts the film because you don’t buy for a minute that a summer movie starring Tom Cruise will end with him or his two kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) anywhere near dead. A remake of War of the Worlds directed by Spielberg would have sold itself; it didn’t need star power, and if Spielberg had cast someone like Paul Giamatti — an actor who can play someone who might fail — the movie would be more successfully terrifying.
As it is, we’re not sure why Ray, running with hundreds of others on the chaotic streets, doesn’t get zapped along with the dozens who get reduced to ash constantly on either side of him, other than the fact that he’s Tom Cruise. As written and played, Ray has nothing much going for him aside from bulldog determination. He has to protect his kids at all times and at all costs, thwarted by one crisis or another (sometimes it’s aliens, sometimes it’s panicked mobs of people), and you get the sense that he’s being punished for being an absentee father. Millions of humans perish by fire so that Ray the deadbeat dad can redeem himself through action — or action-movie action.
Apparently it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film these days without a stretch of film that makes little sense and could be deleted with no harm done, and here we have Ray and his little daughter holing up in a basement with a grim-faced survivalist played by Tim Robbins. The climax of this plot thread serves no purpose other than to prove that Ray will do anything to keep his daughter alive, except that the proof is kept behind a closed door. For Robbins’ part, playing a gun-toting redneck, he gives the sort of crude performance — to paraphrase Pauline Kael — only a very dedicated liberal would give. His character is Bad News the second we lay eyes on him, because he’s rural and he’s armed. Spielberg and Robbins are both capable of more subtlety than this.
Some viewers have been bothered by the film’s wealth of 9/11-inspired imagery — the missing-person posters, the flakes of ash that used to be flesh falling everywhere. Spielberg gets a pass there — 9/11 showed us all what real disaster looks like, and it would be disingenuous of the movie to go back to the relatively clean zap-zap of something like Independence Day or, for that matter, the original 1953 War of the Worlds. If the destruction is unavoidably exciting, the aftermath is by necessity sobering and chilling. A director can be of two minds about the carnage he wreaks — we saw it in the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter-attack sequence in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, equal parts invigorating and appalling. Spielberg, following H.G. Wells’ book, eschews the ID4 formula of “Aliens attack; we hit back.” The power of our military is shown to be haplessly meaningless against the well-shielded aliens; the aliens’ downfall, as relevant today as in Wells’ day, is simply the arrogance of dominion. Too confident in their ability to wipe out big foes, they don’t account for smaller ones.
In the end, this War of the Worlds plays on American fears much the same way earlier versions of the story (including Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio hoax) did — in this case, terrorism, with a side order of unease about the way things are going in Iraq. (Talk about the arrogance of dominion; if anyone finds it implausible that aliens would invade a planet they know fatally little about, how about a country that starts a war on bullshit pretenses with an insufficient number of troops and threadbare equipment, hoping that the people will greet us as liberators? We have met the aliens, and they are us.) It’s fun to analyze summer entertainment this way, if not terribly satisfying; it doesn’t make the movie larger than it is. I still prefer Tim Burton’s flamboyantly goofy Mars Attacks, which had no agenda other than to blow stuff up for fun. Spielberg blows stuff up better than anyone — he proves himself the maestro of that by-now-degraded game. But he does it so well that it’s a hard act for even the maestro to follow.