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Review: A fine, exciting 'War'

Spielberg's new film terrifying, brilliant

By Paul Clinton

War of the Worlds
Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in "War of the Worlds."


Tom Cruise
Steven Spielberg

(CNN) -- H.G. Wells' alien invasion story "The War of the Worlds," first published in 1898, is a looking glass for the fears of the times.

When he wrote it, Wells -- like many observers -- was uneasy about industrialization. In 1938, Orson Welles re-enacted the story on the radio at a time when Hitler's war machine was gearing up in Europe. In 1953, when the Cold War was at its height, a successful movie starring Gene Barry was produced.

Now, Steven Spielberg has brilliantly resurrected "War" in the aftermath of September 11, with terrorism on many minds. It's no coincidence that the movie begins in present-day New York City.

The alien invasion is seen through the eyes of one man, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), and his two children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin).

The film starts heavy-handedly. Divorced from his wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), Ray -- as the script makes clear again and again -- is an inept, indifferent father. When his children reluctantly appear for a rare visitation to his messy bachelor pad in working-class New Jersey, we're repeatedly shown that they don't particularly like him, and he has no idea of how to relate to them.

But things pick up considerably when a gigantic and strange lightning storm blackens the sky. In small, effective vignettes Spielberg captures the awe and ensuing panic of Ray's family and neighbors as the storm clears and huge alien tripods -- triggered by the lightning -- begin to rise up from beneath the city's streets.

The tripods immediately begin to vaporize buildings and people at random. Soon Ray -- in a gruesome nod to 9/11 -- is covered in ashes from the debris of human remains as he and his children flee the city.

Strong performances

Unlike other sci-fi movies involving the planet's destruction, "War of the Worlds" contains no major landmarks blown to smithereens, no urgent messages from the Oval Office and no scenes of frantic TV reporters doing dramatic live shots while surrounded by the terrified public.

Spielberg doesn't need the cliches. Instead, he adheres to the suspenseful story of an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary event -- albeit with two kids attached. (Children weren't a part of the original version.)

Fanning once again gives an amazing performance, showing a maturity way beyond her years. Her character, along with Cruise's, is in nearly every scene and she's vital to Ray's eventual redemption as both a man and a father.

War of the Worlds
Cruise copes with panic in "War of the Worlds."

The character of the son, however, is a major flaw. A standard-issue cranky teen, he disappears halfway through the film for little reason (it's the, "Dad, I want to do it myself!" gambit), and -- quite frankly -- he's annoying. There's no need for a son in the film; it's really a father-daughter story, and that's where the film's heart resides.

Tim Robbins turns up as a deranged man named Ogilvy, a character based on "the Curate" from Wells's original story. Spielberg is confident enough to cut away from the main action when Ogilvy, Ray and Rachel are trapped in the basement of a farmhouse surrounded by alien machines. At this point, "War of the Worlds" is more than a sci-fi thriller -- it's an intense psychological drama.

Spielberg's exceptional talents -- as both a filmmaker and a storyteller -- are on full display throughout the film. As for Cruise, he can never really step out of his indelible image as Tom Cruise, International Megastar, but he nevertheless delivers a solid performance, flaring his nostrils on cue.

Screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp -- undoubtedly guided closely by both Spielberg and Cruise -- have crafted a script that adheres to both the spirit and the basic structure of Wells' original story, adding some horrific set pieces.

If only Spielberg had had faith enough to follow his own path instead of going with the abrupt, Wells-ian ending. The "say what?" conclusion is a little too cute -- and not up to the standards of the rest of the film.

That said, "War of the Worlds" is one hell of a ride. The special effects are seamless and the story succeeds in being both touching and horrifying. "War of the Worlds" can be a nightmarish trip, but it's a terrific film, a blockbuster that lives up to its billing.

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