No other director does foreboding with the finesse of Steven Spielberg. He gets a puzzle ticking in your head with a thick carpet of clouds, then allows you an anticipatory shudder at an eerie lightning storm. When city streets crumble like a concrete cookie and a fissure speedily climbs the façade of a church and cracks it, you wonder, What next? Since this is a Spielberg thriller, you know that the answer has to be, Something worse. Something wonderfully worse.
You know the rest if you've seen this latest adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (script by Josh Friedman and David Koepp) or even if you haven't. Out of the rubble rise giant alien ships that walk on three spindly legs and whose deadly heat rays not only destroy civilization as we know it but also threaten to split up Tom Cruise's latest movie family. The new film is a toss-up with George Pal's very watchable 1953 version: the special effects are even better here, the drama even lamer.
Spielberg has said he wanted to make a film about "American refugees." He thinks of northern New Jersey as postwar Europe. There, survival was a form of heroism, and filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini etched stories of a continent of the homeless. So this is Spielberg's Open City or Germany Year Zero, disguised as When E.T.s Go Bad.
His more serious ambition undermines the domestic drama that War of the Worlds also wants to be. In a land with millions of humans vaporized by alien rays, with the Hudson River turned into the Styx, awash in corpses--in such a world, the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans. Yet we are meant to care for Ray (Cruise), his teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter (Dakota Fanning)--natural antagonists forced together by disaster. How do three members of a broken family behave during an alien invasion? Exactly the way they do any other time. Dad drives erratically, son sulks in the front seat, and kid sister screams in the back. Hey, guys, we're having an apocalypse here. Could you please stop bickering for a sec?
And actors--especially Tim Robbins, as a daft homeowner--could you please stop hyperacting? This is a monster movie, not a Bergman film. The monsters are pretty cool: hood-headed, dog-faced critters that suggest the Alien beast mixed with one of the nastier Gremlins. They, and the tricks Spielberg uses to display the devastation they wreak, are the show. A splendid horror show it is, except when three little people get in the way.