Will ''War of the Worlds'' make history? -- We go behind the scenes of Steven Spielberg's newest film
  • Movie

A ghastly wialing echoes through the San Gabriel Mountains on this gloomy winter night. Follow the sound, and before long you’ll find yourself hiking up a dirt road to a remote ridge some 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Here is where you’ll discover that the source of this hideous, inhuman clamor — a rhythmic alien bleating beyond even H.G. Wells’ unearthly imaginings — is a small tent pitched in the middle of a muddy clearing.

”It’s an old ABBA song,” cheerfully announces Steven Spielberg, surrounded by banks of video monitors and coils of camera cables, along with an iPod plugged into a stereo that’s blaring the 1974 dance ditty ”Waterloo” all over the hillside. ”It was a huge hit when I was making Jaws. I listened to it every day on that set.” He bops to the disco beat for a moment, then (mercifully) lowers the volume. ”It was my lucky song back then.”

Right now, on this set — where the bearded, baseball-capped 58-year-old director is making War of the Worlds — it may not be necessary. This film already has plenty of signs in its favor, starting with a script based on the 1898 Martian invasion novel that helped kick off the whole science-fiction genre (even if this adaptation does sometimes stray light-years from Wells’ classic, with screenwriter David Koepp updating the tale to the present day, adding a divorced dad and a couple of kids to the plot). There’s also the film’s not-so-over-the-moon $135 million budget, bankrolling, among other things, the fiery combat sequence being shot in these hills, in which the U.S. Army gets fricasseed by death-ray-spewing tripods (played tonight by a couple of cranes; the giant alien stomping machines will be added with CGI later on). And then, of course, there’s the movie’s luckiest star of all, Tom Cruise, the biggest box office draw in the known universe.

”Spielberg and aliens — how can you beat that combination?” asks the actor, getting almost as worked up as when he talked about his girlfriend on Oprah. ”This is the director who made E.T. The director who made Close Encounters. And now he’s taking on H.G. Wells and the original alien story. How fun is that going to be?”

That’s one question that hit-starved Hollywood is asking right now. (The other, of course, being, What on earth is up with Cruise. . . and Katie. . .and that appearance on Oprah?) Spielberg, after all, is a colossus in these parts, the man who taught this town how to count past $100 million, whose 21 movies have earned a combined total of more than $6 billion worldwide. Granted, his last film, 2004’s Terminal, didn’t quite hit the pop-culture sweet spot — grossing only $77 million domestically — but then it wasn’t exactly aiming for it, either. (Actually, for a two-hour drama about a ”Krakozhian” refugee wandering around JFK Airport collecting luggage trolleys and eating ketchup on crackers, it didn’t do so badly.) With War of the Worlds, though, Spielberg is swinging for the box office fences once again, shooting his most marketable, effects-driven thrill ride since dinosaurs roamed his sets. It’s much scarier and darker than his previous alien idylls — trust us, you won’t want to take anyone home and feed them Reese’s Pieces — but it’s an Event Movie just the same, his first in nearly a decade.

War of the Worlds
  • Movie
  • 117 minutes
  • Steven Spielberg