Through its first 100 minutes, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is a near masterpiece. It is almost heartbreaking when the film implodes
in the final 10 minutes. The plot is wrapped up in such an abrupt, cheesy, and unsatisfying way that some short sighted viewers may actually
completely turn on the movie. But even though the payoff isn't there, the buildup is well worth the price of admission.
Unlike films such as Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow where we get five different character sets (four of which are usually
uninteresting), War of the Worlds only focuses on one family and the events from their perspective. This family is led by Ray Ferrier (Tom
Cruise), who has custody of his two children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) for the weekend. The characters are well set up in just a
short amount of time, laying the seeds for Spielberg to scare the hell out of us later on.
When the attacks start, the film goes into overdrive. Spielberg's direction of action sequences is phenomenal. The use of long-take, moving
camera shots put us right into the action without becoming so chaotic as to confuse us. There is one shot where Ray is running away from
the just appeared Alien Tripods that goes on far longer than we expect. The same can be said for when the family escapes in their minivan.
It is one continuous shot that circles the vehicle completely.
A key component in these shots is visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Their work here is absolutely astounding. The Tripods
are completely convincing and terrifying.
Just as effective is the sound design, which is thunderously loud when it needs to be, and subdued when it should be.
The best part of War of the Worlds is that it scares us. It absolutely terrifies us by taking place in a completely realistic universe. We really
feel like it could be us in the Ferriers' place.
Although he has been in the news for dubious reasons lately, it must be said. Tom Cruise is excellent in the film. It is definitely one of his
best performances. He plays Ray as a distant father, thrust into a situation and trying to grow up real fast. Equally good is Dakota Fanning as
Ray's daughter. You really feel the weight of life-scarring trauma in her terrified face.
The only real shortcoming of the first 100 minutes is that there are some plot holes. For instance, why is that guy able to film the attack on a
camera after the EMP strike? But these are mostly forgivable. What isn't forgivable is that the ending is laughable and the big twist hugely
disappointing. Even though it is more plausible than water or loading a virus into the alien system from a Mac, it is wholly unsatisfying and
executed very poorly. It really hurts what could have been a classic. As it is though, War of the Worlds is good entertainment that falls just
short of greatness.
* * *
(out of four)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Josh Friedman and David Koepp
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto,
Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Rick Gonzalez, Yul Vazquez
Cinematography by: Janusz Kaminski
Music by: John Williams
Released: June 29, 2005; 116 Minutes