The story goes that the 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” amplified the terror of listeners in the isolated Skagit County township of Concrete when, at a crucial moment in the drama, the entire village went dark. The panic caused by the coincidental blackout caused some residents to flee to the mountains, and others to take up arms, awaiting the inevitable confrontation with Martian invaders. Eventually, it’s said that it took sheriff’s deputies almost two weeks to track down a scattered few who had taken shelter in the hills.
Modern audiences who experience Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation won’t have that reaction. Well, at least for most of the movie, when they’ll have an iron grip on their armrests — or the person next to them. If anyone flees the theater, it will only be as a result of the film’s closing scene, when the audience is expected to stretch their suspension of disbelief beyond reason.
The film opens to find New Jersey dockworker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a divorced father of two, grappling with his less than stellar weekend parenting skills. His children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) aren’t that enthusiastic about spending time with him, either. Alienation runs deep, long before the weather takes an ominous turn. What fragments of family dynamics that exist are thrown into chaos when the windstorm quickly develops into something far more sinister. Suddenly Ray and his offspring are thrown into a maelstorm of death and destruction as it becomes evident that they are in the midst of a horrific extraterrestrial invasion.
One of the earliest science fiction tales in contemporary literature, H.G. Wells’ 1898 novella “War of the Worlds” has also had an enduring shelf life, giving rise to not only Orson Welles’ infamous radio drama, but now two films that have shaped the story to the mood of their times. In the 1953 version, it was the menace of the Cold War; in this 2005 adaptation, it is the fear of global terrorism. The spectre of 9/11 permeates the narrative and the effect is chilling.
Regardless of how you feel about Tom Cruise’s real-life persona, the actor is a surprisingly effective lead in “War of the Worlds.” If only he’d stick to acting. The real star of the film, however (besides the superb special effects), is Dakota Fanning. Her performance is absolutely heartbreaking as Ray’s traumatized young daughter, Rachel. Fanning has an innate ability to channel vulnerability and fierceness through that 11 year old body, and it is powerful to witness.
“War of the Worlds” is not your typical summer blockbuster — nor a typical Spielberg film. There are no wisecracking sidekicks, no cheer-inducing moments of victory. The film fuses together a strange amalgam of Spielberg’s signature themes: childhood innocence lost, triumph in the face of despair. It’s intensely persuasive — that is, until the final frames of the film, when you realize your intelligence has just been insulted. While it’s a disappointing end to an otherwise above par science fiction film, it’s still a definite must see.