Film Review: ‘War of the Worlds’ Update Hits Home

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg's update of the science fiction classic War of the Worlds, may be a popcorn adventure at heart, but its fight against invaders hits close to home.

The modern version of science fiction writer H.G. Wells' 1898 classic novel, which pits an unsuspecting public against an unstoppable attack force from Mars, calls on terrorism fears to spread its message of survival and determination.

With explosions galore - bring earplugs, you'll need them - and violence that never resorts to gore, Spielberg presents a stunning depiction of surprised alien aggression and humanity's seemingly ineffective defense.

War of the Worlds, which opens in theaters today, follows blundering father Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) as he bears witness to the destruction of humanity at the hands - or tentacles - of towering, three-legged machines. He also must keep his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and defiant son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) alive on the harrowing trip between their Newark, New Jersey home and Boston, where safety supposedly awaits.

Telling a story of interplanetary war through the perception of one character harks back to Wells' original story, which relates Martian aggression as witnessed by a single protagonist who, himself, is trying only to reach his wife. Cruise's still-boyish charm allows the portrayal of Ray to move beyond simple action hero status to that of caring and - eventually - responsible father. But unlike most modern disaster films, Spielberg's Worlds goes refreshingly easy on major landmarks (there isn't a dog either, which I used to believe ubiquitous in such films), without sparing the battles.

As expected, the film's special effects don't disappoint, and combine the pulpy allure of the tentacled, ray gun-toting Martian tripods in Wells' novel with the sleek look of a modern - albeit alien - war juggernaut.

Worlds is darker than Spielberg's previous stints with alien visitors, among them 1982's E.T: The Extraterrestrial and 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But then Wells' aliens aren't the sympathy-craving kind, even if they are 107 years old.

Despite its dark overtones, and liberties taken with Wells' source material by screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp, Spielberg inlays his take on Worlds with several fun gems that fans of the original text and the George Pal/Byron Haskin 1953 film version can appreciate.

In one, the earth slowly unscrews to unleash alien war machines. Later, a suitably creepy Tim Robbins (Mystic River) appears as Ogilvy, a basement-bound survivor whose plans for a resistance are a far departure from those of ill-fated astronomer of the same name depicted in Wells' written tale.

The faithful finale of War of the Worlds may fall flat for strangers to Wells' story (a population which shockingly includes my lovely wife), despite its many appearances in book, radio, television, film and - yes - rock opera incarnations.

But Spielberg offers a new notch in Wells' legacy, and a refreshing revisit to interplanetary war.

(War of the Worlds opens June 29. Running time: 112 minutes, PG-13).