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War of the Worlds (2005)

Theyre already here.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 116 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Newark blue-collar dockworker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is divorced from Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and estranged from his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and ten year old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Mary Ann drops off a reluctant Robbie and Rachel for a rare weekend visit, departing with the words “take care of our kids” – and shortly afterwards a freak lightning storm breaks, cutting off all power and releasing from the ground a gigantic metal tripod which begins to obliterate anyone and everyone in its path. Ray flees with his children, and as it dawns that this is just a tiny part of a massive worldwide alien invasion, the three join a desperate flood of refugees, hoping to get safely to Mary Ann in Boston. As their world is turned upside down, Ray will stop at nothing to keep his family alive.

With his new update of H.G. Wells 1898 novel ‘The War of the Worlds’, Steven Spielberg presents a peril so overwhelmingly vast and mercilessly indiscriminate that thoughts of negotiation or resistance are futile, and the only hope that remains, however precarious it may be, is survival itself. For as in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, the principal characters here are on a cross-country dash not to save the world, but only their nearest and dearest. Both films tap into the new sense in Americans, post-9/11, of horrified impotence before an unquantifiable and relentless threat – although, unlike Emmerich, Spielberg manages to avoid all those control room sequences and destruction of landmark monuments that have become the stopgap clichés of the whole disaster genre. Instead, he restricts his focus to the experiences of a single, ordinary family struggling to comprehend and outrun large-scale catastrophe, so that ‘War of the Worlds’ has far more in common with M. Night Shmyalan’s Signs or even Michael Haneke’s The Time of the Wolf than, say, Independence Day.

There is no escaping the fact that Spielberg’s vision, with its collapsing buildings and crashing aeroplanes, is strongly informed by the assault on New York’s Twin Towers – indeed Rachel’s immediate response to the disaster exploding around her is to ask her father “is it a terrorist?”, a question echoed shortly afterwards by Robbie. Yet the director who showed us the friendly side of aliens in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial’ is far from being converted by the events of 9/11 into an out-and-out xenophobe. There will of course be those who regard his destructive space invaders here to be cyphers for militant Islamic fundamentalists, much as science fiction movies of the 1950s so often used aggressive aliens as stand-ins for communists (a convention to which Spielberg fondly alludes by having his three-fingered felons dress the landscape in red) – but in fact ‘War of the Worlds’ is far less concerned with the invaders themselves than with the conduct of its terrestrial characters, turned into desperate refugees by an unstoppable holocaust. This is, if you like, less E.T.’s revenge than a sci-fi version of ‘Schindler’s List’ – a morality tale about the human capacity for both good and evil in its most extreme forms – and here it is the ‘terrorist’ activities of the human, rather than the alien, characters that come under Spielberg’s cinematic microscope.

It is easy to criticise the deep vein of sentimentality that runs through Spielberg’s œuvre – and this film ends with a family reunion that is almost perversely syrupy given all that has preceded – but in ‘War of the Worlds’ Spielberg uses his well-worn motif of family ties to smuggle in all manner of unexpectedly subversive material, asking his viewers to question just how far they would be willing to go to preserve their own kith and kin.

It's Got: Tom Cruise finding the perfect balance between likeable and repellent Everyman; Dakota Fanning proving once again that she is the finest actor of her generation (and in the first decent vehicle in a while to match her talents); cameos from Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of the 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskin version of the film; drama, suspense, horror, comedy - and, of course, relentless aliens in giant tripods with a bad case of the sniffles.

It Needs: Some reflection - like all good science fiction, this has more to it than just spaceships and pyrotechnics.


Spielberg's second holocaust survival feature is an unexpectedly subversive Wells adaptation that puts extreme human behaviour under the microscope.