The grand-daddy of alien invasion literature, HG Wells, might not recognize many of the details from his 1898 novel War of the Worlds on the screen—director Steven Spielberg has updated the material to present day, changed the setting to the United States and the aliens are no longer Martians—but the spirit of the book is very much evidence. In fact, the themes of the story may have more resonance with modern audiences who live with Terror Alerts and paranoia of a new enemy.
Here we have Spielberg exploring the dark side of two of the movies that made him famous—ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and in the process he has made a scary and intelligent popcorn movie.
Spielberg is equally at home telling small, personal stories like Catch Me if You Can while at the same time being able to manage large scale special effects epics like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. Here he blends both skills, giving us a story of one family’s flight from aliens that threaten to take over and destroy the world and relentless action. His vision of the devastation caused by the angry aliens is immediate and intense. When the giant tripod warriors first arrive and begin incinerating buildings and evaporating Earthlings at random it is an action sequence that equals the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan for sheer muscle.
The film can’t possibly continue at that pace, and Spielberg finds ways to make even the quietest scenes—an extended scene in a basement with Tim Robbins as a disturbed man who wants to battle the beasts has extended wordless sequences—bristle. Those scenes will thrill, but the horror doesn’t just come from the aliens, but also from the insensitive way that humans treat one another in this panicked situation.
Despite an ending that is as sudden as it is unsatisfying—it’s almost like the filmmakers got bored and decided to wrap it up a day or two early—War of the Worlds has the earmarks of a summer blockbuster. That is if post-September 11 audiences are ready to view devastation, turmoil and horror as entertainment.
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