War of the Worlds
Tom Cruise plays against type as a freaked-out everyman out to save his kids (and everyone) from a Martian menace, in Spielberg’s H.G. Wells update.
In the wake of 9/11, Spielberg made two films back-to-back that dealt with the attacks: War of the Worlds is the most visceral and immediate, a summer blockbuster about destruction, panic, and blind flight. The alien tripods don’t hate humanity for our freedoms — we’re never allowed to understand them as anything other than an implacable, mechanical menace, one of several deliberate nods to H.G. Wells’ landmark novel in Josh Friedman and David Koepp’s screenplay — but their hellish arrival out of a clear blue sky, and their relentless assault recaptures the sudden, all-consuming panic of that day.
Even sharper than that central allegory is the casting of Tom Cruise, a movie star who has built a career on playing supercompetent action heroes, as someone who has no idea what to do in a crisis of this magnitude. His single-dad character’s only thoughts are for his kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin), and saving them from fiery invaders determined to lay waste to them and everyone else. There are scenes in War of the Worlds that come closer to true horror than anything Spielberg’s done in decades; he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski aren’t playing coy with the carnage. The film is also a master class in reimagining the pulp sci-fi movies of his youth as urgent, vital cinema. You just have to wait until your heart rate slows back down before you can fully appreciate that.
Content advisory: violence, frightening scenes, coarse language