Release Date:  June 29, 2005
Rating:  PG-13 (for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images)
Genre:  Sci-Fi Action Adventure
Run Time:  117 min
Director:  Steven Spielberg
Actors:  Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, Justin Chatwin

People go to popcorn movies to forget about the real world.  The freakish antics of Tom Cruise, however, have made that impossible with “War of the Worlds.”  Thankfully the master of summer flicks Steven Spielberg is at the helm.  With his commanding cinematic prowess, the aged wunderkind makes us forget the Cruise baggage with this stunning and completely engrossing thrill-ride.

Still, even before Cruise’s couch-jumping spasms, it’s clear Spielberg never wanted us to forget the real world in the first place.  Indeed, updating “War of the Worlds” has obvious contemporary parallels.  Spielberg taps deeply into the national zeitgeist once again as he turns H.G. Wells’ classic novel (an allegory of British imperialism) into a post-9/11 parable.  And in patented Spielberg form, he drops a broken suburban family into the heart of it.

The film opens patiently, establishing the core relationships.  Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a divorced dad estranged from his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning).  He has his kids for the weekend, an inconvenience for all three as past hurts have created bitter walls.  Walls so strong they can only be brought down by a life-altering event.  Like, say, an alien invasion.

And oh what an invasion it is.  Rather than a swarming assault of spaceships from the air, the ships emerge from underground; this heightens the tension of where they might come from next and also works as a subversive parallel to the terrors that lie hidden in our real-life society.  When the ships do emerge, it’s a sight to behold.  The special effects are seamlessly authentic; with each reveal raising the invasion’s size and scope, “War of the Worlds” boasts a “whoa!” quotient that’s off-the-charts.

But Spielberg also keeps us effectively in the dark.  The reason for the invasion is never explained or even theorized, making the aliens (and movie) more mysterious, ominous, and daunting.  And with a focus on one family we’re as in-the-dark as they are, creating a non-stop anxiety that anything could happen at any time.  Many disaster-flick clichés — government buildings exploding, world leaders plotting counter-attacks, news updates from around the world, etc. — are also thankfully avoided. 

The violence is fairly graphic.  People are blasted into oblivion, masses wiped out in a single swath, and landscapes become blood-drenched.  Language is fairly pervasive as most non-R profanities are used, including numerous uses of God’s name in vain and derogatory sexual slang.  Swearing even occurs between father and children without punishment involved.

Reuniting with “Jurassic Park” scribe David Koepp, Spielberg grounds these characters, their relationships and faults through clear portrayals rather than verbose exposition.  Ray is a flawed man, one who’s responsible for his family’s breakup and still has some maturing to do.  But it’s hard for a man with his history to compete with a loving step-dad, making the chasm between Ray and his kids even wider.

Rather than uniting under extreme circumstances, the alien attack only exacerbates their differences.  This imbues the action with layers of emotional complexity.  A daughter latches on to her brother rather than her father for security, a son distrusts his father’s motives even in the midst of their escape, and the father is devastated by the realization that their perceptions are actually justified.