As a boy growing up in the 1950s, Steven Spielberg was always watching the skies. He experienced meteor showers with his father, enjoyed space dramas like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and dreamed, he told friends, of being the Cecil B. DeMille of science fiction.
Now, half a century later, with awards and profits beyond counting behind him, Spielberg has kept faith with the boy he was. With "War of the Worlds" he has made what is arguably one of the best 1950s science fiction films ever, and that is not a backhanded compliment.
Working in the spirit of his predecessors but with the kind of uncanny special effects they could barely dream of, Spielberg has come up with an impressive production that is disturbing in the way only provocative science fiction can be. It's a traditional, even old-fashioned effort that, like its 1950s forebears, is willing to confront up-to-the-minute societal concerns more mainstream features avoid. A film that, finally, may be even more disturbing than its creator intended or we've been expecting.
While Spielberg has said in interviews that his focus in this film is depicting an ordinary guy and his children coping with an alien onslaught, in some ways the family dynamic is the weakest link in the story. Even with Tom Cruise as what the press material delicately calls a "less-than-perfect father," the remarkable Dakota Fanning as his wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Justin Chatwin as his inevitably surly teenage son and Miranda Otto as his remarried ex-wife, what we come away with is a sense of the power of evil, not the strength of good.
This is due in large part to the potent nature of the underlying material adapted by screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp: the celebrated H.G. Wells novel that has caused a sensation each of the previous three times it's been put before the public.
When "The War of the Worlds" appeared in print in Britain in 1898, one of a series of groundbreaking science fiction novels including "The Time Machine" and "The Invisible Man" that Wells was turning out on a regular basis, its idea of aliens from Mars attempting a hostile takeover of the planet was startling in its newness.
When Orson Welles did a radio dramatization of the story on the night before Halloween in 1938, a genuine panic shook the nation, with one individual, the New York Times reported, insisting to a phone caller "the world is coming to an end and I have a lot to do." And when George Pal produced a 1953 version of the tale, the film was striking enough to get a trio of Oscar nominations and win one for special effects.
The irresistibility of the concept -- at one time reportedly everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Sergei Eisenstein considered doing adaptations -- and the keenness of execution aside, the same two factors led to the success of each of those versions, factors that combine one more time to make Spielberg's rendering as potent as it is.
All of these "Wars" have had the advantage of appearing at uncannily fraught moments in world history, striking a chord with a citizenry already primed to be unnerved. The original novel appeared when Britain feared an invasion from Germany, the Welles broadcast on the cusp of World War II, the Pal film during the Cold War. More than that, each version has had the additional plus of complete plausibility, of seeming like something that could be actually happening. Wells himself was keenly aware of his story's "attempt to keep everything within the bounds of possibility ... that from first to last there is nothing in it that is impossible."
With the specter of terrorism, the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea, Iran and who knows who else, not to mention the invasion of Iraq (which the film takes a veiled swipe at), we certainly live in perilous times. Spielberg's "War" is a perfect fit for our paranoid, potentially apocalyptic age, a film that considers the possibility, however obliquely, that the world as we know it could end.
It's a tribute to the perspicacity of Wells that the voice-over Morgan Freeman reads to open the film comes almost word for word from the opening of the 1898 novel. "No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century," Freeman reads with impeccable iciness, "that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own.... An intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes."
With this blood-chilling introduction out of the way, "War of the Worlds" (the film has lopped off the novel's initial "The" as well as all references to Mars) pulls back to introduce us to our protagonists: Cruise's parenting-challenged Ray Ferrier, Fanning as young Rachel, Chatwin as teen Robbie. A blue-collar kind of guy's guy who works on the Jersey docks, Newark resident Ray has to watch his kids for a few days while his ex (Otto) and her husband go off on a trip to which children are definitely not invited. It turns out to be one heck of a weekend.