This year’s designated summer vacation Bigfoot, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds scans like a new-millennium-blockbuster mission statement: less froth, wonder, and safety, more ordeal, trauma, and internal bleeding. The carnival grounds have become a war zone. Indeed, with Batman Begins and the latest installment of George Romero’s epic Deadness, it seems that Hollywood has collectively decided that, this year, the June-to-August dog days will be a grave and mean season. More’s the better, generally speaking—and in the first, bolero-like movement of War, Spielberg spares no collateral and shoots the wounded. After we’re set up with a rote, unconvincing Tom Cruise–as-deadbeat-dad scenario—he’s a Jersey dockworker saddled with his kids for the weekend—the sky begins to blacken, the odd light of close electrical storms takes hold, the wind kicks the laundry, and g slowly comes to town.
It’s a rare thing—a summer movie that demands to be taken as a serious emotional experience. If the urban-Americana vibe is hard for Spielberg to nail at first (harder than the California-suburbia rhythms that were his specialty two decades ago), the second-by-second unfolding of the tripodal alien invasion is one of the most eloquent pieces of under-the-skin filmmaking he’s done in years. That is, it’s a quaking nightmare, not merely because the ILM team got the physics right—watch the Bayonne Bridge twist and collapse in excruciating detail—but because the film focuses wholly on the obliteration of social control, individually and globally. In many ways, the movie reaches its peak with its chilling portraiture of mass panic, from the astonishing road hog exposition sequence (Cruise’s terrified dad trying not to explain to his kids what’s going on as he weaves in and out of stalled traffic and to and from the camera) to the image of a crowd tearing into an SUV’s shattered windows with bloodied hands. Although it’s thoroughly retooled, H.G. Wells’s scenario doesn’t allow for many soft landings, and the extreme respect for havoc on view quite properly keeps the Spielbergian cutesies to a minimum.
That War is the bare-fanged evil twin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a given, but the movie’s relationship to 9-11 is more troubling. Clearly, our experience in 2001, televisual and otherwise, has taught the F/X wonks a few things about massive catastrophe (a lot more smoke and dust, for one thing), but Spielberg explicitly alludes to the WTC attacks in dozens of ways: missing-persons postings, fallen airliners, reflexive questions like “Did you lose anybody?” etc. The references are merciless, and firsthand veterans of ground zero should approach the movie with tongs. Is it exploitation of our experience, or is Spielberg forming a statement? At the very least, the presumption, pace Roland Emmerich, seems to be that we have, after a four-year rest cure, regained our consumer’s appetite for destruction. You may have.
War of the Worlds is, in the end, more modest than its first half suggests; the screenplay has story-meeting paw prints all over it. (Justin Chatwin, as Cruise’s surly teenage son, decides halfway through that “I have to see it!”—what?—and disappears for the rest of the running time.) Close to a half-hour is spent in a farmhouse basement with Tim Robbins as a half-baked militia man. But there are moments of uncommon, distressing beauty: burning Jersey trees, a river of floating corpses, a crowd waiting at a railroad crossing as a burning runaway train barrels by, a snowstorm of tattered clothes excreted from human-consuming alien vessels. Other images, like a loaded Hudson River ferry turning over matter-of-factly, dumping cars and people, can too easily steal your dreams.
And what of Tom? He’s on the edge, in the movie and out of it, although Wells’s simple story has been molded into a passional for Katie Holmes’s bubbly-headed Heathcliff to prove himself trustworthy and man enough. But there may be more to the psychodrama than even Oprah anticipated: Wells’s Martians-arriving-in-meteors paradigm is subtly altered, so that now the genocidal ETs are delivered by lightning bolts into the dormant ships buried underground for eons—kind of like the time frame for Scientology’s alien occupation backstory. Could Tom be thinking he’s finally produced a Dianetic cinema? Does it qualify as a faith-based initiative? As Wells said elsewhere, I look about me at my fellow man. And I go in fear.