War of the Worlds: Welles Improved?

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            H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel “The War of the Worlds” has made the leap to other media forms before. Most are familiar with Orson Welles’ 1939 radio broadcast that caused panicked listeners to flee their homes, and many have probably seen the original 1953 film adaptation.  So what possessed creature-feature/popcorn movie director Steven Spielberg to rehash the story of Earth’s invasion by Martians? The answer, of course, is money.

            But monetary motivations aside, Spielberg managed, yet again, to create a fun, special effects-based summer blockbuster about the trials and tribulations of people under extreme, supernatural duress.

            Tom Cruise leads a cast of largely unknown actors as Ray Ferrier, crane operator and divorced, deadbeat dad of a teenage son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and a young daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Cruise barely manages to keep the first ten minutes of the movie believable, carousing around in his character’s midlife crisis-mobile and generally being a terrible father. Ironically, it’s when Cruise and company encounter the unfriendly extraterrestrials that “The War of the Worlds” is at its most believable. Thankfully, this consists of most of the movie.

            Needless to say, the special effects carry this movie. As soon as the final flashes of lightning hit the ground (sans thunder and in the same spot over and over) and the tri-legged behemoths rise from the earth, you are enraptured. Even though each scene is generally the same (humans walk around, Martians arrive in war machines, humans run away, protagonist and family miraculously survive), there is a pleasing sense of mounting tension just before all hell breaks loose.

            The plot is basically unsurprising, even if you’ve never read the book. The “surprise twist,” while most likely quite fresh when originally written, is a bit stale now, most likely because every mediocre science fiction writer throughout the years has plundered something from Wells. The fact that Wells’ story is prototypical doesn’t keep the film from being entertaining, however; in fact, part of what makes “The War of the Worlds” interesting is seeing how Spielberg has updated it.

            Cruise’s supporting cast is perfectly serviceable, but the only standout performance comes from Fanning as the mindful, yet vulnerable Rachel. Fanning captures perfectly the attitude of a self-assured preteen exposed to unbelievable horrors and being nearly shattered by the experience.

            Perhaps the most genuinely frightening scenes are not the ones during which the aliens wreak destruction across cityscapes, but rather the ones that show the depths of desperation and violence that people are capable of. One in particular portrays a group of hundreds brawling over the one running vehicle that anybody has been able to find. The results are less than pretty, and the scene, an example of only a handful of non-special effects driven scenes, hits closer to home as a result. We can write off destruction and death when it’s perpetrated by fictional space denizens, but when it’s real people, it’s a bit more disturbing.

            In the end, “The War of the Worlds” shares many popcorn characteristics with other space alien summer movies. The special effects are well worth the $7.50 ticket price, but if you didn’t like “Jurassic Park” or “Independence Day,” stay away.