At a running time of around 118 minutes, War of the Worlds is Steven Spielberg’s shortest film since the early ’90s – yet the film still sports the same sort of uneven pace that’s been plaguing his movies for years now. While War of the Worlds does feature a number of genuinely thrilling and surprisingly frightening moments, it’s also rife with needless subplots and overly simplistic instances of character development. Tom Cruise stars as Ray Ferrier, a deadbeat dad who finds himself stuck with his two kids for the weekend. Said kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), clearly aren’t thrilled about the idea, but everyone’s misgivings are soon rendered moot. Aliens from an unspecified planet have arrived on Earth and have begun systematically exterminating everyone in sight. This leaves Ray with little choice but to grab his kids and make a run for it. The most striking and surprising aspect of War of the Worlds involves the brutal, uncompromising nature of the invading extra-terrestrials. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from depicting their deadly modus operandi, something that’s made perfectly clear in their first major appearance. After emerging from beneath a city street, vicious tripods (so named because of their three-legged appearance) abruptly begin attacking the awe-struck onlookers – literally vaporizing them to the extent that all that’s left are their clothes. It’s pretty harsh stuff, and not at all what one has come to expect from Spielberg; to call War of the Worlds inappropriate for small children is a gross understatement, and there’s no denying that this is his most harrowing science fiction film to date. What prevents the movie from becoming an instant classic, then, is David Koepp’s unusually ineffective screenplay (this is, after all, the guy who wrote Jurassic Park). While Koepp does a nice job of establishing the story and characters, the writer peppers the story with far too many instances of conflict among the human characters. As a result, there seems to be almost as much screentime devoted to the alien invasion as there is to Ray’s squabbles with various characters (ranging from a blood-thirsty mob to his own son). Such antics can’t help but feel superfluous (there’s an entire subplot with a survivalist played by Tim Robbins that’s particularly pointless), given the imminent and deadly threat from the tripods. This is compounded by Koepp and Spielberg’s heavy-handed use of 9/11 imagery, from the white powder Ray is covered in after returning home following an encounter with the tripods to the walls plastered with posters of missing loved ones. It’s fairly obvious that Spielberg and Koepp are attempting to link the aliens to terrorists, but the two go overboard and place the emphasis on similarly over-the-top elements designed to clearly spell out this connection. Likewise, Ray’s journey from negligent father to attentive caregiver is far from subtle – yet despite such deficiencies, War of the Worlds essentially remains entertaining throughout. Cruise delivers an expectedly charismatic and engaging performance, while Spielberg does a fantastic job of imbuing the film with an unusually gritty, realistic vibe (Independence Day this is not).
*** out of ****