They Came From Below

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

If we see the darn movie will Tom Cruise go away, please?

Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds (Paramount Pictures) is a devastating mixture of tumult and emotion—full catastrophe living, with soul. The director is right there inside the feverish head of his protagonist, dock worker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise); the whole film is told from Ray’s limited vantage. The FX are terrifying, but War of the Worlds is in a different league than that empty theme park of a movie, Jurassic Park. True, it has a ham-fisted script, a bewildering objective for its hero (it involves getting from New Jersey to Boston), and an ending that—given the level of tension—isn’t cathartic enough. But this is a blockbuster that transcends summer blockbusters. In all the ways that matter, it’s pure.

It’s not your father’s War of the Worlds—but it is a father’s War of the Worlds. Cruise’s Ferrier isn’t some manly alien-slayer—although he does have a terrific gotcha! scene that’s a sop to the audience, which certainly needs a sop at that grim juncture. Largely, he’s a man who runs away from towering, tendriled, three-legged alien death-ray machines. All he can think about is saving his young daughter (Dakota Fanning) and headstrong teenage son (Justin Chatwin), who challenges his every move.

The film opens with Ray hurrying home (working-class Bayonne, N.J., with the humplike Bayonne Bridge in the background just itching to be blown up) to take his kids from his pregnant ex-wife, Mary Anne (Miranda Otto), and her yuppie husband (David Alan Basche). Mary Anne says, significantly, “Take care of our kids”—which is a both an exhortation and a rebuke. Ray has never taken his responsibilities as a dad seriously, and he’s defensive and irritable. His son mocks him; his daughter has moved beyond him. He sulks off to his bedroom, and, when he emerges, the world is on the brink of upheaval.

The screenplay (by Josh Friedman and David Koepp) plants thematic signposts all over the place (Ray must learn to think of someone other than himself, etc.), and Ray’s son has a bizarre impulse to follow the army into battle that isn’t very well dramatized. But Spielberg’s handling couldn’t be more subtle or Cruise’s performance more quick-witted. Ray is a poor communicator, but in his prickly, paranoid way, he’s responsive to everything, and Cruise seems to be plumbing his own anger to bring out all the character’s inner tension. If Ray is never a great dad, Cruise makes it clear that he’s operating with dadlike primal instincts: His reaction time is faster than his thinking.

This War of the Worlds doesn’t bear much resemblance to H.G. Wells’ novel, or to the Orson Welles ‘30s radio play that used it as a springboard and caused a national panic. Parts of the more faithful 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskin film were actually scarier. It’s still shocking in that movie to see three humans approach the first alien ship waving flags and hollering friendly greetings, only to be incinerated, leaving a white-ash outline of their bodies on the ground. I’d like to think that Spielberg found this scene too heartbreaking to re-create: It’s a reversal of his Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which the aliens who beckon are welcoming, beatific, and harmoniously musical. In the new film, the giant alien walking machines emit a theater-shaking metallic honk before commencing the carnage. It’s the perfect sound of death from above. In the past, Spielberg’s nice aliens have been replacements for absent dads. Now, for a change, it’s the dad who has to be a dad.

The opening is brilliantly low-key, with ominous TV news reports of lightning bolts and electronic pulses. When black, roiling clouds approach the city, Ray calls to his daughter, “Wanna see something cool?” He thinks it’s great—the way we all secretly hope for a violent storm from time to time to give us a little jolt. But the lightning keeps striking the same place, and the eerie quiet that follows—with only the jingling of wind chimes and the distant barking of dogs—wipes the grin off Ray’s face. His daughter asks, “Is it gonna be OK?” and he says, “I dunno, I dunno.” Her stricken reaction confirms that this is not what a daddy is supposed to say. (Stricken comes easy to the goggle-eyed Fanning: I don’t recall her blinking in the entire film.)

Later, John Williams provides some ambient, almost subliminal accompaniment, but much of the action has no music underneath it. It’s the silence—and the otherworldly sound—that eats into your mind. The sequence in which the first alien ship breaks through the asphalt—the gimmick here is that they come from below—is as bloodcurdling as anything in movies, with mysterious rumblings, fissures in the road, buildings collapsing in stages, and, finally, the rise of the machine: It’s like some kind of spider-squid topped with an elongated reptilian head reminiscent of H.R. Giger’s alien.

As amazing as these FX are, Spielberg’s virtuosity with humans counts for more. When Ray bounces frantically around his living room gathering up the family’s belongings, unable to tell his kids that he has just seen a city block destroyed and hundreds of people disintegrated, the hand-held camera swerves with him. It’s not a showy effect. It’s just perfect for what the character—and the audience—is feeling. The scenes with seething crowds are the work of a humanist as well as a master filmmaker. Even when people attack one another, you never lose sight of their underlying terror and desperation.

Late in the film, there’s a sequence as great as anything that Spielberg or Cruise has ever done. It’s in a basement, with Tim Robbins (broad but sensationally effective) as Ogilvy, a man who has lost his family and gone around the bend. He wants to take the aliens on, but Ray knows that this likely means death, and, more important, death for his daughter. The bit with the alien probe that snakes around, sometimes rising up like a cobra, is superb, but it’s standard horror-movie stuff. Then Ogilvy goes for his shotgun, and Ray tries to get it away from him, and the two struggle silently for a long time, practically arm-wrestling, staring into each other’s eyes, one bent on violence, the other on stopping that violence. That’s what you’ll remember from War of the Worlds: that ferocious stillness and its morally devastating aftermath. No wonder the ending (straight out of Wells) is such a letdown. It’s a deus ex machina for a devil ex machina, but it’s the human struggle that makes this a sci-fi masterpiece.

Update: I’ll be doing one of those strange, disjunctive Washington Post “live chats” today at 1 p.m. E.T. on the subject of War of the Worlds. Related topics include H.G. Wells, Spielberg, Spielberg’s aliens, aliens in general, general alienation, Tom & Katie, Scientology, the perfidy of antidepressants, al-Qaida parallels, childrearing in the age of terrorism, and why it’s good to drink “free trade” coffee. (As usual, I’ll be tapping away over a series of triple espressos at Brooklyn’s Gorilla Coffee.) Click here  and join me, if you’re so inclined.

Update 2: Thanks, everyone, for a very pleasant discussion last Wednesday about War of the Worlds. Much of it was devoted to Tom Cruise’s recent manic behavior, but that was to be expected, as many people hadn’t yet seen the movie. You can read the transcript at the Washington Post site here. There are good questions relating to 9/11, Iraq, H.G. Wells, the film’s unsatisfing conclusion, fatherhood, colonialism, and any hidden political messages that might or might not be there. One clarification: Because of fuzzy grammar (these things are typed on the fly), I seem to be saying—while citing Magnolia—that Cruise has father issues and needs therapy. I was speaking, of course, about the macho, misogynistic character he plays, not about the actor.