Divorcee Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is lumbered with his kids for the weekend. Hardly a model dad, Ferrier is struggling for fun things to do. Not to worry, alien war machines are warming up beneath them.
Around the point in Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds where the grunt-soldier ET bathes the cute blonde kid in yellow, Close Encounters-style God-light, seasoned 'berg-watchers may recall the heckle Homer J. Simpson once directed at greying rock institution The Who: “No talk, no new stuff, just play the hits!”
‘Tis no joke - after a couple of ‘personal projects’ failed to resume normal service at the box office, the world’s most successful director is back in his summer-spectacle wheelhouse, crafting a blockbuster from all his favourite materials. And yet, before we pack the popcorn and the studio-suits begin rubbing their grubby hands, remember this: the Indiana Jones guy is nearly 60 now, and the wars of the world weigh heavily upon his pleated brow.
As you would expect from an act with the richest repertoire in the biz, a Spielberg Best Of… collection repays the ticket price very early doors. Dispensing with opening credits - currently de rigeur for Hollywood - WOTW busts out of its blocks, exhausting virtually all of the trailer footage in a breathless 25-minute sprint. (No interminable on-stage banter to rile Homer here.)
Indeed, before Spielberg groupies have had time to tick off ‘broken home’, ‘precocious pre-teen’ and ‘blue-collar hero’ from their prepared checklist, house cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is shooting the destruction of ‘everytown USA’ (notch up another tick) with a raw immediacy and random ferocity previously reserved for Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg, meanwhile, is busy banging the major chord marked ‘tension’ with a metronomic intensity not heard since Bruce the Shark went duh-dum.
And the hits keep on coming. For a solid hour, as the Ferrier family miraculously stay one step ahead of the Tripods, Spielberg keeps cranking out the sturm und drang beyond what might be expected - and perhaps past what most multiplexes will happily endure.
A few flashes of comedy dad from a decidedly unmannered Cruise aside, there is little fun to be had here, and certainly none of the good-natured bonhomie that made Jaws such a rollercoaster boat ride.
The effect is so striking that it can only be deliberate. In 1940, Welles (Orson) needed only Wells (Herbert George), a radio and some showmanship to scare a war-wary America witless. Some 65 years later, with the US shadow-boxing a less substantial foe, Spielberg requires a greater arsenal of parlour tricks to ram H.G. home but the result is similarly devastating.
Indeed, so terrifying and resonant is the surprise attack that one hopes George W. is next door watching Dukes Of Hazzard lest he cite this new ‘alien threat’ as a pretext to invade Iran.
The problem with one-note films, however, is that eventually said note goes flat, and here Spielberg is undone by a mixture of his own sensibilities (nothing breaks the tension like a sentimental aside), elements imported wholesale from the 107 year-old novel and, in one misjudged motif, sets stolen from Byron Haskin’s 1953 Cold War classic (cineastes can quietly applaud the reproduced sound stage, everyone else will simply think it looks fake.)
More damagingly, David Koepp’s confident screenplay falters on a third act that even Wells wonks have always judged unsatisfactory, and a typically cloying conclusion seriously tests the goodwill amassed over the previous two hours. (Following similar fumbles on Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report and The Terminal, finishing movies on the right ‘gracenote’ - as studio suits will insist on calling it - has now become a major problem for Spielberg.)
And yet, ultimately, it is not the attenuated structure or occasionally sickly wicket that stand between WOTW and the front rank of Spielberg’s matchless output — it is the slow sapping of what might best be described as total belief. As with Ryan's Omaha beach, Spielberg’s full focus is much more keenly felt in the opening onslaught than in the fightback that follows.
It's almost as if the veteran director is all too aware that America faces graver threats than previously imagined but no longer has complete conviction in allied victory, nor even, perhaps, in the continued right of her cause. Cynicism from that Indiana Jones guy – who’da thunk it?
Dark and stormy, even gloomy, this is a distinctly autumnal blockbuster from the man who invented summer. A greatest-hits package from our greatest living entertainer, there is almost overmuch to admire here, but only the moments that aspire to post-9/11 relevance chill as well as thrill.