It's been three decades since Steven Spielberg ushered in the current blockbuster age with 1975's Jaws, but for all the blustery spectacle that's followed, no one else has learned to wrangle the elements with such effortless panache. As a piece of pure visual storytelling, there likely won't be a more gripping film this year than Spielberg's War Of The Worlds, which at its best glides along like choreography with a camera, slowly parsing out information while shrouding the rest in shadow and suggestion. For a long stretch, starting with an astonishing alien campaign to raze a New Jersey city, the film charges along with sustained, purposeful tension and horror, which owes everything to Spielberg's complete control over his effects. Early on, it's easy to forgive the miscasting of Tom Cruise as a blue-collar bloke, or some hiccups in the screenwriting, like the hasty shorthand that establishes Cruise as a deadbeat dad with resentful children, an instant recipe for redemption. But then the ending arrives and the dyke bursts, and all that's left to admire is how a great director kept the cracks from showing.
In an unfortunate case of star casting, Cruise strains credibility as a hard-edged Jersey dockworker who lives alone, deservedly catching the short end of a divorce. When his two kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) show up for an obligatory weekend, they're barely moved to call him "Dad," but events soon conspire to make Cruise grow responsible in a hurry. After an eerie prelude of lightning-strikes robs the city of electrical power, a fearsome army of alien machines rises up from below the surface to incinerate everyone and everything with death rays. Their shields impervious to counterattacks, the aliens eradicate the populace and send Cruise and his children on the run, eventually leading the clan to hole up in a basement with intrepid survivor Tim Robbins.
Though the image of a city in ruins immediately recalls 9/11—in fact, Fanning wonders aloud if it's terrorists at work—War Of The Worlds has stronger echoes of Spielberg's Schindler's List, due to the stark terror of innocents who are powerless to stop their extermination. Evoking the spirit of H.G. Wells' science-fiction classic, the film positions itself as the anti-Independence Day: Since the enemy has no apparent weaknesses, no amount of can-do American bravado will get the job done. Heroism lies in survival, not in bloody retaliation, and Spielberg captures the awful, wriggling helplessness of people in the face of overwhelming force. Too bad that his talent for pleasing an audience is also his Achilles' heel, leading to a false, hollow conclusion that completely sabotages the movie in its bid for uplift. In the end, Spielberg overreaches, but at least he has the long arms to do it.