The alien invasion films of Steven Spielberg's early career, 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1982's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, were the product of the post-counterculture, post-Vietnam era.
If films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing From Another World reflected the Cold War Soviet paranoia of their times Spielberg's represented the burgeoning detente between a world previously separated by politics, prejudice and misunderstanding.
Spielberg's War of the Worlds reverses course, unabashedly reflecting the barbarians-at-the-gates mentality of its source material. First published in 1898, H.G. Wells' original story was largely a commentary on British anxiety over the Kaiser. Orson Welles' famous 1938 radio play came during the rise of the Third Reich. And, the 1953 film adaptation was released at the dawn of the Communist scare.
That Spielberg's version is a post-9/11 allegory is stating the obvious. If the row of American flags mounted to the front of homes in a New York City suburb just prior to the aliens' attack is not a dead giveaway, then the inelegant rumination by one character of whether the attack is being perpetrated by "terrorists" certainly is.
It is also indicative of the type of ham-fisted storytelling that presents a church as the first casualty of war, embodies an estranged father-son relationship by way of opposing Yankees and Red Sox ballcaps, or begins and ends with voice-over narration by Morgan Freeman.
Soon after working-class, divorcé dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) gets his two estranged children for a weekend visit, a strange lightning storm germinates gigantic underground alien tripods that spring to life, carrying with them the will and means to exterminate our species. In contrast to Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, who leaves his family to follow the siren song of space visitors, Cruise literally runs away from the aliens in order to be with his family and save them from both physical and emotional destruction.
No American director today has Spielberg's adroit eye for the camera lens. As in his previous work, War of the Worlds contains at least half a dozen memorable visual set pieces--e.g., one dead body, then a torrent of bodies slowly floating down a river; the clothing of hundreds of vaporized humans floating like snowflakes onto a forest bed.
The film is not without its moments and narrative potential. The hysterical devolution of civilization that accompanies the overpowering attack and its side effects--death, destruction, loss of electricity and other utilities--is the most effective thematic device, which, when coupled with the director's visual aplomb, feels almost Hitchcockian at times. Yet, this fertile examination is truncated in lieu of more special effects shots of marauding machines and strained, boring byplay between Ray, his rebellious teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and his precocious, health-food munching nymph of a daughter, played (naturally) by It-sprite Dakota Fanning. (If the Martians ever do invade, I'm offering Fanning up as a human sacrifice.)
But, 30 years after Spielberg shrewdly used a shark to paralyze, excoriate and finally redeem a sleepy demonstration of Americana, he employs a tedious tale of familial strife to headline the end of the world. It is here that another Spielberg bulwark, character development, is regrettably absent. A critical component to this film's framework is caring what happens to the Ferrier trio. But the short, unimaginative set-up before the aliens arrive does little to emotionally invest us in them. You would learn more about people watching an episode of Dr. Phil, which, incidentally, would be a more befitting milieu for this dysfunctional, peculiar and downright annoying family.
Frankly, Spielberg has an 80-minute movie, tops, that he is forced to elongate into almost two hours by stuffing it with a succession of hollow vignettes and extraneous material--at the height of the attack, the family spends at least five minutes of film time debating the finer points of peanut butter sandwich construction. Later, there is an overextended sequence inside a farmhouse cellar--featuring a crazed Tim Robbins--that compresses the film's broad canvas into an isolated and ultimately meaningless diversion.
A story that was once groundbreaking is now cinematic old hat. A worldwide alien attack was big-budget summer fare in 1996's Independence Day, while the focus on a broken family's reaction to another invasion by space creatures was central to M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (2002).
Spielberg also retains two of his most serious faults: his inability or unwillingness to present strong adult female characters (only The Color Purple diverges from this pattern), and his single-minded affinity for the rose-colored, "Spielbergian" ending, a predilection that has, in recent years, nearly ruined films like Minority Report and Artificial Intelligence: AI. Whether for the most successful living American director or a turn-of-the-century sci-fi thriller, the real lesson of War of the Worlds is that the more things change, the more they stay the same ... and not always for the better.