Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a working-class divorced dad stuck with his two estranged kids, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), for a weekend while their mother (Miranda Otto) heads off on a trip. While Ray's relationship with his children continues to be severely strained, there's something happening around the world that will have to put a hold on the arguments and bitterness: a full-scale alien attack. Faced with the extermination of the human race, Ray and his kids journey around the East Coast looking for shelter wherever they can find it, in a desperate bid to survive and understand this assault from the heavens.
While the latest in the long line of adaptations from H.G. Wells' original 1898 novel of a Martian invasion, Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" (IMDb listing) has much more in common with a certain summer blockbuster released nearly 10 years ago: "Independence Day." While snobs dismissed it as an obvious popcorn grab for attention, "Day" was terrifically fun in a blue raspberry bubblegum kind of way, and it knew exactly what it was. The new "Worlds" doesn't seem to share that level of cinematic confidence.
There's no argument that Spielberg is one of the all-time great filmmakers, and the opening 30 minutes of "Worlds" showcases his gifts for clever shot construction and exploration of familial relationships more profoundly than anything in his recent past. However, over the last few years, the filmmaker has embraced his dark side, seemingly in an effort to change his "E.T." reputation as a candied storyteller, and front load his filmography with pictures of substantial brood and weight ("Minority Report," "A.I."). "Worlds" is purely the work of the new Spielberg, as the film constructs a tale of alien invasion as cold and depressing as a winter storm (with heavy, blatant 9/11 overtones), and as comfortable to sit through as a spanking machine. This is Spielberg going after dark for dark's sake, and "Worlds" makes for one of the strangest and bleakest productions ever to market itself as summertime movie entertainment.
Technically speaking, "Worlds" is a marvel. Seamlessly collaborating with ILM, Spielberg's vision for Earth's final moments is a bold study in CG fireworks and sickening brutality. How this film bribed its way into a PG-13 rating, I will never know, but rest assured "Worlds" is meticulous in detailing just what the aliens have in store for humanity; from the skyscraper-sized "tripods" incinerating all who stand in their way to the chilling origin of the red weeds spreading across the landscape. Though marketed as a summer diversion, this is a horror film through and through, almost to a point of mean-spiritedness. Spielberg wants to submerge the audience in the confusion and claustrophobia the invasion brings, and he nails this perfectly. Nevertheless, the isolated moments of comic relief in "Worlds" point out that maybe even Spielberg thought he went too far in the end.
Truthfully, all the madness is sold with marvelous set design, visual effects, and spazzy but intricate cinematography. "Worlds" couldn't look better, representing the most money Spielberg has spent on a film in his career, and every penny is up on the screen. Like a shiny metal toy with thousands of red lights and buttons, "Worlds" is an undeniable optical wonderland.
However, outside of the visuals, there's nothing to grab hold of in the script. There's an interesting twist to this tale of global doom: the audience never really sees the extent of the devastation. The story is told through Ray's perspective, so where he goes the alien revelations go. This works well in designing an original feel for the story. By keeping the expected money shots away for most of the film, they retain an enormous power when they are presented. Yet, following Ray's odyssey through the war zone with his family, the story starts to grind to a halt, and the screenwriters soon run out of ideas, eventually just throwing Ray and Rachel down into a farmhouse cellar for a large portion of the film. The pace of "Worlds" never really gels, alternating between gigantic suspense set pieces and intimate family moments of discord. Outside of one powerful moment involving Ray and Robbie (who wants to join the military resistance against the aliens), there's little else in the film that engages the heart. Characters are thickly drawn and well performed by the cast, but never come to life, nor allowed to breathe under the film's heavy wet blanket of gloom and its distractingly erratic scope.
The optimistic ending of "War of the Worlds" mirrors Wells' original book, but Spielberg goes out even further to make sure no irreparable damage was done to the audience. There's even a grotesque military moment late in the film that seems to fly in the face of the depressing tone Spielberg was hunting for earlier. "War of the Worlds" is a solidly made production, but far too inconsistent to have any staying power in the senses.
Filmfodder Grade: C