War of the Worlds is a modern adaptation of the 1898 novel of the same name by H.G. Wells. This version is pure Hollywood with a mega-budget, Spielberg at the helm and Tom Cruise in the starring role and of course the action has been transposed to the USA.
The story follows Ray Ferrier, a divorced dad, who seems to be struggling with domestic life. He returns home from his crane operator job to find his wife dropping off the kids for the weekend. His son Robbie clearly has issues with his dad and Ray seems equally out of touch with his daughter Rachel. This family relationship thread runs throughout the film climaxing with a typically cheesy Spielberg style ending.
After a short sleep Ray awakens to find his son missing. He goes to look for him but upon going into the street a lightning storm starts up. After the lightning all electronic equipment and machines have stopped working, even cars have ground to a halt. This kick-starts a truly spectacular opening sequence in which alien invaders emerge from under the ground in gigantic tripods bent on destroying all human life and claiming dominion over the world.
Spielberg is undoubtedly a great director and the initial introduction to the tripods is beautifully handled. The entire street becomes an instant war zone as panicked people desperately flee in confusion and disbelief. There are some excellent effects and stunt sequences and the direction really captures the feeling of panic and fear. Spielberg tracks Ray as he runs from the invaders, narrowly avoiding disintegration. The crowds are running blindly as total carnage unfolds around them, buildings are collapsing, windows shattering, cars flying through the air and over it all you can hear the terrifying low screaming sound of the tripod as it prepares to fire.
Ray takes his kids, manages to grab the only working car and makes a break for it. They head for Boston to try and find his ex-wife, but as they soon discover, the tripod was not an isolated event as in fact the whole world is under attack. The interaction between Ray and his kids is a classic estranged dad tale and it sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the alien invasion.
The cast is mixed, Cruise was his usual self and believable enough as Ray. His son Robbie was played by Justin Chatwin and he did fine. Dakota Fanning played his daughter Rachel in a typical revoltingly cutesy way, by turns vulnerable and then worldly wise. Tim Robbins pops up as Harlan, a guy they hide with for a while and he played the part well adding a thoughtful touch to proceedings.
As you´d expect of the budget this a highly polished piece of work and despite a weak story it is visually stunning and surprisingly unsettling. The whole mood of the two hour film is pretty bleak and it feels gruelling at times as though you are undergoing the desperate race for survival along with them.
While the big set-pieces with the tripods attacking towns and cities work very well the close up alien sequences aren´t so great. In particular the scene inside one of the tripods just looked wrong. The pace is fairly slow and it does feel like it´s dragging in places, if you´ll pardon the expression Spielberg should have cut the cheese.
The violence in the film is quite shocking and the implied actions of Ray are at times very dark. This could very easily have been an 18 certificate but for careful choice of camera angles and the absence of a couple of scenes. I still think the resulting film would be quite scary for a kid and if you suspend your disbelief the effect is still chilling as an adult. This isn´t a great film but it´s a definite improvement on Spielberg´s recent form.