My boy Will got back from camp yesterday and while he was away, I DVRed Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). I’d forgotten how scary the first half of this movie is. I’d also forgotten how effective Tom Cruise is as the “in over his head” father of two who must escape the aliens while protecting his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin). Cruise has always infused a little of Risky Business in all his roles, hindering his ability to play period or even mature. That bright smile is too youthful and winning, and Cruise as a weathered or dispirited character seems both a stretch and a waste. Even his Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible movies is always kept running at full clip lest we realize he’s having too much fun to be such a serious international spy.
Here, however, Cruise plays weary, completely out of depth and even selfishly beleaguered in being stuck with his two children at a moment when the world is being ravaged and dominated by aliens. His performance is riveting and is enough to overcome some clunky father-son, “why weren’t you there for me?” dialogue with Chatwin.
As the family wends its way from New Jersey to Boston, where Cruise hopes to reunite the children with their mother, massive Imperial Walker-like monsters emitting ominous foghorn sounds vaporize some people, and collect others for extraction of their blood, for fertilization. I think. This is where the movie gets weaker. Since the alien invasion is so unexpected, we have no clue, no Jeff Goldblum scientist, to explain what is happening. Like Cruise, we can only guess. I respect the bravery of the decision with regard to the narrative, but after all of Spielberg’s set pieces are finished (the initial appearance of the aliens, the aftermath of the crash of a jumbo jet, the alien attack on a ferry crossing the Hudson), one starts to wonder why the aliens are so meticulous about finding Cruise and Fanning, who, after surviving the ferry attack, are hiding out in the root cellar of an unstable Tim Robbins. Thus far in the picture, the m.o. of the aliens had been indiscriminate and brutal, yet near the end, they send a snake-like probe into the basement, followed by an investigatory party of 4 aliens, followed by yet another probe. The only reason for this deviation in behavior is to create a very tense scene that seems out of place when, flushed out, Cruise and Fanning are merely scooped up. The extended sequence also allows for some tiresome back and forth between Robbins (let’s fight) and Cruise (let’s not).
The ending is also a let-down. The aliens get sick and die. Movie aliens have many of the same problems we do as an occupying force, but we look much better in comparison. If you thought it took us some time to get our footing in Iraq or Afghanistan, at least we figured out we could breathe the air in those places before undertaking the endeavors. The ultimate fault of the aliens in War of the Worlds seems a little rudimentary, though not so stupid as the aliens in Signs, for whom water was acid, making Earth a strange choice for colonization.
One other complaint. For all of Spielberg’s gifts and power, he can be gutless in his presentation of popcorn fare (see another Cruise vehicle, Minority Report, a film noir spoiled by Spielberg’s constitutional inability to have the audience walk away sad). There is no way Chatwin survives this picture. But not only does he survive, he beats Cruise and Fanning to Boston for a family homecoming and a stirring end.