Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, ...

About 120 print, TV, and online journalists from around the world gathered in the ballroom of New York’s Essex House hotel for a pair of ”War of the Worlds” press conferences, first from Tim Robbins, and then from Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, who fielded questions together.

Robbins, who has a small but pivotal role, got started about 25 minutes late, thanks apparently to some technical and sound glitches. ”We can make tripods come out of the air but we can’t get the sound right,” joked Robbins, looking fitter and trimmer than the doughy proles he’s played in his last couple movies. He answered all questions affably, even those that were fatuous (asked what a more famously friendly Spielberg alien would think of the film, Robbins said, ”E.T. would be pissed”) or that baited him about his career (”I don’t think much about Howard the Duck,” he said when reminded of that early low point in his filmography) or his politics (One moral of the film, the outspokenly anti-Iraq War actor said, was that ”you can conquer but you can never really inhabit”). Asked if he thought there was intelligent life on other planets, he replied, ”I’m not sure intelligent life exists here.” He ended his remarks with what he called ”a shameless plug” for Embedded Live, a filmed performance of his satirical play about the Iraq War, which he said is out now on DVD.

Then came the World’s Biggest Movie Star and the World’s Biggest Movie Director, who together seemed to form the world’s biggest mutual admiration society. They said they had never disagreed about anything over the course of making two sci-fi epics together. Both also downplayed the potential box office threat from Fantastic Four, saying they were both looking forward to seeing the superhero adventure with their own families.

One reporter asked a question about Katie Holmes (she apologized inadvance for having to ask, but she said she was from Us Weekly, so itwas her duty), and Spielberg deflected the question for his pal,marveling that it had taken a full 20 minutes for someone to bring upHolmes, which was apparently some kind of world record for reportorialrestraint and discretion. A few minutes later, Cruise defused the topicwith a joke, recalling that when he first read David Koepp’s War of the Worldsscreenplay, he was so excited he jumped up and down on the sofa as hephoned the director. (Spielberg said he could hear the springssqueaking over the phone.) ”I’m an excitable person, as you may haveheard,” Cruise said. It’s a good line, and one that he’s used in anumber of recent interviews.

Cruise, who still looks impossibly boyish in person (he was wearinga short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned to the torso that showed off hisimpressive pecs and biceps), handled my mention of the S-word(Scientology, that is) with only a little less aplomb. I asked Cruiseif the alien-invasion plot, especially the one major change from H.G.Wells’ book and all previous treatments of it, had any particularresonance to him as a Scientologist. He replied with incredulity,insisting that the religion founded by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard hasnothing to do with aliens, then recommended to me a couple of Hubbardtitles I should read for further study, grinning that famous grin thewhole time. Spielberg picked up the ball and said he’d made that plotchange just for the sake of novelty, having grown bored with the waythe alien invasion had been presented in every previous variation onthe story. Still, that differed from what Koepp told me this morning,when he said the change was his idea, one he made on the grounds ofscientific plausibility.

Another reporter asked Cruise and Spielberg a question about what itwas like to work with Dakota Fanning, and we were back on the happytrack until the press conference was over. At that point, several ofthe reporters swarmed around Cruise in order to get his autograph. Thisis a journalistic no-no, an abandonment of objectivity and professionaldetachment (plus, it’s tacky), but hey, who’s gonna let those thingskeep them from rubbing shoulders with the World’s Biggest Movie Star?