Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier
Justin Chatwin as Robbie Ferrier
Dakota Fanning as Rachel Ferrier
Tim Robbins as Ogilvy
Miranda Otto as Mary Ann Ferrier
David Alan Basche as Tim
Based on H.G. Wells’s classic 19th century science fiction novel, War of the Worlds is a humanistic story of aliens invading Earth. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is an arrogant, self-absorbed blue-collar worker who almost by accident has a family – Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) – he doesn’t know what to do with. His main impetus as a father seems to revolve around showing his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her new husband (David Alan Basche) that he can, and assuaging his own guilt, instead of actually trying to raise his children. He is about to have his eyes opened to the true terror and tribulations of being a parent in the most extraordinarily horrific way possible, when alien war machines suddenly burst out of the ground and begin to methodically wipe out all of life on Earth. Moved solely by the unlikely hope that his wife is somehow still alive in Boston, Ray proceeds across country with his children in tow, staying just one step ahead of the alien invaders and equally unpredictable and dangerous human survivors.
The first half of War of the Worlds is Spielberg at his most compelling. The capper of the first act, as Ray desperately tries to survive the attack of the first tripod and get home is a complex mixture of tension and pure adrenal terror, but Spielberg makes it seem effortless, showing just enough at just the right places to make it work.
When Ray finally gets home, covered in the ashes of his former neighbors, he’s a fundamentally changed man – and Cruise nails the transformation. An adolescent who never really grew up, he is suddenly forced into adulthood in the blink of an eye, making the hardest choices life can offer under the worst circumstances imaginable. As things gets worse, Ray grows and grows as a man and as a father, a father who will do whatever – whatever – he must to save his children.
Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin provide just the amount incentive for Ray to transform into a real father. Chatwin is a troubled young man who is more like his father than he would admit, but as things go to hell they need each other for the first time ever. Fanning has made quite a career out of playing eerily intelligent children, and she does so again here. More than anything else she gives Ray his reason to keep going, as he tries to protect her from the physical and emotional dangers of being at ground zero for an alien invasion. Fanning is remarkable as always, but her incredible intellectual presence often makes her not quite convincing as a normal little girl. As trade offs go, it’s worth it.
Ogilvy, Tim Robbins crazed ambulance driver, appears in the weaker second half, and is one of the reasons it is weaker. His performance is good, but the entire idea of him disrupts the mature insanity the film had embraced. It’s all worth it for the final character payoff though.
The real strength of the film is how closely Spielberg welds it to Ray and his family. Rather than create an over the top spectacle about humanity’s efforts to repel the invaders, he has chosen to tell the story of one family’s (and by extension everyone else’s) experiences trying to live through the events. In many instances, extremely important events take place nearby but ultimately unseen – over a hill top or behind a basement door – in order to focus on what those events mean for the characters rather than the events themselves. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of horrific spectacle, there are, but this is a spectacle film that’s ultimately about character and it’s that choice that gives it power.
It falls apart a little bit towards the end – Spielberg steals a few tricks from some of his earlier films in order to eke out the tension past its breaking point – but only a little bit. The only possible straw for the audience’s back is the end, when Ray finds what he finds in Boston. Some will be pleased and see it as the logical emotional conclusion to the film, and some will hate it. All things being equal, it’s a small thing that doesn’t change the greatness of what’s come before, and is perfectly in keeping with the novel.
A film of terrible awe and humanity, War of the Worlds is some of the best work Spielberg has done in years and well worth every minute, even if the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first.
War of the Worlds is rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images.