At a traffic intersection in blue-collar New Jersey, the pavement buckles and shakes, a church front shimmies away from its walls, and a dark metallic body that looks like a giant robot squid bursts, as if born, from the earth, rising up over the block with its trio of deadly tentacles, its plated pterodactyl head, its glowing spotlight eyes. Is it our imagination, or did this extraterrestrial machine-creature let out a deep, rumbling roar? Watching Steven Spielberg’s spooky and playfully spectacular remake of War of the Worlds, you may feel a surge of childlike awe, the same sort of awe inspired by the nuclear-nightmare fantasies of the ’50s the moment when the giant tarantula, the Tokyo lizard king, the hell-bent flying saucer…the thing, whatever it was, stood revealed.
Yet Spielberg, an unparalleled master of the dynamics of movement and scale, scarcely gives the audience time to gape. Over and over in War of the Worlds, he evokes the sensation, more familiar from dreams than movies, that an otherworldly entity, glimpsed from a great distance, is suddenly, violently clawing its way into your personal space. The terror is far away and close up at the same time, which may be why the movie collides so forcefully with our anxieties.
War of the Worlds is an attack-of-the-aliens disaster film crafted with sinister technological grandeur — a true popcorn apocalypse. As the army of invaders rises up, for no given reason, to exterminate the human race, the movie never takes itself too seriously. Spielberg, though, creates a potent and almost violating sense of disruption and terror. A death ray incinerates frightened citizens as they run right at us, and those tentacles swoop onto the ground, toying with humans like morsels of food. In one sustained virtuoso sequence, a tentacle winds and folds its way through a basement with snaky cunning, its ”head” searching out people like a roving surveillance camera. (Is this a slyly embedded political statement?) Conjuring an army of metal monsters in the sky, then bringing them right into our faces, Spielberg plays off the post-9/11 image of a potential attack that is vast and relentless, epic in its horror, yet that deep in our imaginations looms frighteningly near.
Updating the paranoia of the 1953 screen version of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi classic, Spielberg, working from a script by David Koepp and Josh Friedman, doesn’t clutter the tension with solemn war-room scenes in which plaid-shirted civilian hackers square off against generals acting with their forehead muscles. He lets us take in the entire invasion through the scrambling, what’s-happening-here desperation of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a jockish bum of a divorced dockworker who lives in a house he apparently never cleans. Ray is spending the weekend trying to look after his two estranged children, surly teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young Rachel (Dakota Fanning), both of whom resent their mess of a father, who seems to barely know them. The situation is stock, the casting shrewder than you might expect: Cruise, just at the moment his cocky narcissism has begun to look a little frayed off screen, is now credible enough to play a borderline deadbeat dad who loves his kids but copped out on the demands of parenthood.
As the three attempt to escape, zipping out of the New York area in what appears to be the only functional motor vehicle in the entire Northeast, Spielberg summons the stop-and-go rhythm of foreboding threat he used in Jaws and Saving Private Ryan — the force of death that keeps returning, weaving in and out of the characters’ fates like a dark spell, growing stronger with every appearance. We first experience the aliens as scary, ear-cracking lightning bolts, which then animate those hovering monsters that zap people at random, the monsters being warships that house something else, which leave mysterious bloody vines in their wake. The very essence of the predators’ danger seems to evolve the more that we learn about it, and the hysteria of the masses, vividly dramatized wherever Ray and his kids go, becomes part of the texture of cosmic alarm.
Make no mistake: What’s unsettling about War of the Worlds, in its roller-coaster nightmare way, isn’t so much the aliens’ methods of destruction (I found the veiny vine stuff a little… unexplained) as it is the film’s visceral vision of world annihilation as something uncanny yet imminent, happening right before your eyes — a fiery fulfillment of our collective nervousness about the fate of the future, an anxiety that may not have been this prevalent since the height of the Cold War. Spielberg has tapped it, once again making pop poetry out of our fears.