Like Hitchcock before him, Steven Spielberg is a master of suspense. He also happens to be the king of schmaltz. The two once again battle it out in his latest action thriller, War of the Worlds, a film that has been mostly kept under wraps until just a few days ago when it started screening for the press, just on the eve of its anticipated 4th of July holiday weekend opener.
Nobody, not even the more financially successful directors, does summer movies better than Spielberg. After all, he invented them with Jaws, a film that made it more fun to sit in a dark, cool theater for two hours than going swimming. Summer movies have not yet lived up to that one summer back in 1976 but they’ve come close. No matter its flaws, War of the Worlds is one of those irresistible, escapist summer movies where you blindly go where Spielberg’s adept hands take you.
The publicity leading up to the film has been about Tom Cruise and his recent wild antics – Scientology, Brooke Shields, Matt Lauer and of course, his new love, Katie Holmes. All eyes are on whether or not the collective gasp of the American public will play into box office profits or not. No one has been talking about the movie at all. If there is a must-see component to the film it’s that no one in the general public has any idea what the space invaders are going to look like – word of mouth will spread, no doubt, once people get a gander at them.
War of the Worlds, the modern day update of the H.G. Wells story made famous by Orson Welles on the radio, is loaded with the kind of suspenseful moments that made Spielberg famous. The story begins with Ray (Tom Cruise), a rather ineffectual father of two kids – the kind of guy who doesn’t notice that his daughter has a big suitcase that needs to be carried out of the car, so his pregnant wife (Miranda Otto) does it instead. His older son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and younger daughter Rachel (the brilliant Dakota Fanning) are to be with him over the weekend, much to their disappointment; it’s so much nicer back at home with mom and her new husband because, among other things, there’s milk in the fridge.
Ray tries to be a good father but just isn’t that good at it. He barely knows his kids. Well, all of that changes when suddenly the world is under attack. Lightning comes from the sky, power goes out everywhere, huge cracks form in the pavement – and all at once, unbelievably, huge, monstrous tripods rise up out of the ground and begin exterminating human beings.
Ray’s goal immediately becomes keeping his kids alive long enough to get them to their mom before one or all are killed. It’s a game of cat and mouse, as Ray and his two kids brave angry mobs, a psycho vigilante and those pesky tripods to survive.
In one particularly tense scene, they must evade the prying eyes of one of the tripod’s eye tentacles – which goes underground to seek out life forms to kill, reminiscent of the velociraptor kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. As in Jurassic Park, E.T., Jaws, Close Encounters and other Spielberg movies, on top of everything else, we have to worry about the welfare of a child. In this case, it’s Dakota Fanning always just seconds away from catastrophe.
With her rail thin body and wide blue eyes, Fanning is the perfect subject for rhe kinds of shots Spielberg likes best – pulling back or zooming in on a surprised face. While Fanning was perfectly cast, it’s hard to know whether or not Tom Cruise was the right man for the job. We’re used to seeing Cruise come in and kick ass – not necessarily to run from scary monsters. He’s not great at showing his vulnerable side underneath his tough guy exterior – not like Harrison Ford, for instance, or even Will Smith (who’s already been there, done that).
The creatures are as delightful as any Spielberg creation – he generally treats them with compassion even if they are killing machines. He has said he wanted to treat War of the Worlds like the darker side of E.T. But he isn’t prepared, with a PG-13 rated kids summer movie, to go as dark as he would need to go to make War of the Worlds as nasty as it wants to be.What we’re left with is lots and lots of great suspense, action sequences and scary monsters but an all-too-neatly tied up ending which short-changes the film. Spielberg wants it both ways – he wants to make one of the scariest films of the summer, but he wants everything to be all right in the end. Nonetheless, War of the Worlds is one of those movies you can’t wait to see again. And you can bet people will do just that.