STARRING: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Justin Chatwin, Morgan Freeman

2005, 117 minutes, Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is addicted to the epic. Bigger is better in Spielbergland so it should come as no surprise that War of the Worlds is an eye-popping special effects spectacle designed to entertain the masses. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that any Spielberg flick with war as a subject is going to put its main characters into a horrific transformation with few casualties. Sure the nameless hordes of refugees suffer, but do you expect any of your main cast to perish in a Spielberg movie? In fact, only in Schindler’s List did we actually see any children get killed.

But halfway through War of the Worlds – a fabulously illogical summer popcorn movie – I started to realize that Spielberg is retreading his own movies. Based on the H.G. Well’s 1898 novel, War of the Worlds has been done as the infamous Orson Welles narrated radioplay, a 1953 movie, as well as a couple of direct-to-cable movies, and a short-lived TV series. In this summer of overrated remakes, Spielberg wears the crown by remaking a sci-fi classic without adding anything new to his version, except for state of the art effects and Tom Cruise.

There is always something comfortably or exasperatingly familiar about a Spielberg movie. The throngs of refugees pressing around a car? Dead bodies floating in the water? We've seen these exact shots before in his WW2 movies. But Spielberg isn't happy just referencing himself -- there's an alien probe that looks remarkably like something from The Abyss and a ferry disaster that also seems to pay homage to Cameron's Titanic. Echoes of Jurassic Park abound with the giant stomping aliens but the possibilities of doing some original re-engineering of this classic tale – the 2003 Battlestar Galactica comes to mind - are lost.

"Compared to Spielberg's older films, this movie is a low effort, no-brainer . . ."

The story is now classic. Martians invade planet Earth with giant tripod machines that can disintegrate people and crush buildings. And immediately we’re face with logic problems that Spielberg chooses to ignore. Though the book was written in 1898, we’re now in the era of Weapons of Mass destruction so it’s pretty odd for an advanced alien race to have to pick off humans one by one with their ray guns. But forgiving that conceit, it’s pretty amazing cinema to watch the machines rise from deep within the earth to begin their destructive advance into a big budget disaster movie.

Tom Cruise stars as Ray Ferrier, a working class divorced father who is stuck with his two kids one fateful weekend. Again, this is a favorite Spielberg theme – the dysfunctional family forced to bond when faced with diversity. Ray’s teenaged son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is all piss and vinegar while the overrated Dakota Fanning screams her big eyes out as Ray’s 10-year-old daughter, Rachel. Ray may not be the greatest pre-invasion dad but when he sees the first alien tripod incinerate a fleeing crowd (reminiscent of scenes from Schindler’s List and Empire of the Sun), he commandeers a minivan to race his kids to safety.

Earth’s armed forces, of course, are useless against the alien onslaught. The only time War of the Worlds gets interesting is when we watch the panicky Cruise try to keep in control while he drags his difficult kids to safety. Disappointingly, both son and daughter are under-written characters. We know little about them except that they resent their dad. And in the movie’s best scene, Cruise faces off against Tim Robbin’s survivalist who has become unhinged. But Spielberg’s best movies like Jaws and Close Encounters had a number of strong, memorable characters playing off each other.

When you see who predictably survives by the end of the movie, you're reminded of Spielberg's gentility and commitment to the PG-13 rating. War of the Worlds didn’t need Tom Cruise to be its star, but it’s a fun movie and a reminder that Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster. War of the Worlds is Spielberg’s classy response to flicks like Independence Day, but compared to his older films, this movie is a low effort, no-brainer.

- Harrison Cheung



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