War of the Worlds (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Beyond the glitzy surface of expensive special effects and superstar actors, Steven Spielberg's newest blockbuster boils down to one message: Only the strong (and maybe the lucky) survive.
It's strange that the man who made Schindler's List, one of the greatest cinematic tributes to the power of compassion amid terror and death, would make a film so devoted to grim biological calculation and familial protection.
Perhaps he's being true to his source material, H.G. Wells' classic novel of sci-fi paranoia that has struck terror in one medium or another for more than a century.
But there's something glum about Spielberg here. Maybe he's still brooding over the relative commercial failure of A.I. , a fascinating and nuanced film that nonetheless earned less money at the theatre than War of the Worlds did in its opening weekend.
With War, it's as if Spielberg has resigned himself to keeping it simple, with blunt, thrilling action, tons of computer animation and big-money glam actors.
In the opening sequence, a narrator announces an alien plot to conquer the world and exterminate the human race.
Unlike past audiences that read the novel or listened with bated breath to the story unfolding on radio, today's viewers already know the gist. So after a few cursory scenes of jerky construction worker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) acting tough in front of his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and his kids Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), we get huge electric storms encircling the globe. Robbie goes missing, and Ray heads into town to find and throttle his son.
Along the streets, every car is frozen still, with engines shot by the electromagnetic field that's descended on New York City. After finding Robbie, Ray rushes to a city square, where a group of onlookers huddle around a lightning crater.
The crater deepens, then spits out a massive robot with towering spindly tri-pod legs and laser arms that vaporize humans.
Ray rushes to protect his kids, beginning a tense race against throbbing hordes of alien tri-pods that doesn't abate until the film's final frames.
Humans smash the widows to the trio's minivan, then kill each other to get inside. Later, Ray and Rachel wind up trapped in a basement with a lunatic survivalist named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Both fearing they'll be discovered by the aliens, Ray and Ogilvy find themselves in a death match.
Fanning is the star of the chase, her wonderfully expressive face registering terror and resolve as she and her dad slog through pulsating alien slime pools. Cruise wears his usual jocko mask, but luckily it doesn't matter much who is playing the role of Ray. We quickly learn he's just another pitiful human clawing to get by.
Beneath a shimmering and nightmarish surface of special effects lies a deep pessimism, reflected in just who survives. Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, inform this as much as H.G. Wells. It's either kill or be killed in order to protect self and family.
And just as his buddy George Lucas took a stab at the Bush administration's Iraq policy in Star Wars: Episode III, Spielberg follows, including a remark from Ogilvy that "occupations never succeed."
In the end, War of the Worlds is similar to Star Wars: Episode III in its brutality and darkness of vision. Perhaps these films fit the times.
-- Dan Wilcock