Until its phony finale undoes everything exhilarating that’s come before, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds proves to be not only a thrilling apocalyptic adventure haunted by the specter of 9/11, but also a summer spectacular in which human relationships and emotions refuse to be overwhelmed by (admittedly awesome) computer-generated mayhem. As with countless Spielberg fables, the central dramatic dynamic involves father-offspring relationships, as deadbeat dad Ray (Tom Cruise) struggles to prove his paternal aptitude to rebellious teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and younger daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) amidst an alien invasion in New Jersey. After his ex drops the kids off for the weekend, towering, laser-firing tripod machines – which are powered by aliens who have traveled to Earth via lightening, and which emit moaning sounds that slyly recall the musical tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind – begin rising from the ground. In these breathtaking opening moments, Spielberg astutely captures both the natural human reaction to initially gawk at strange phenomenon (“Cool,” Ray says at first) and then the more reasonable instinct to run like hell.
Cruise’s intro scene as a dockworker is as unbelievable as the idea that aliens buried their death-dealing vehicles underneath the planet’s surface thousands of years earlier (if they were here that long ago, why didn’t they just set up shop then? Why wait for another civilization to appear?). But the film’s logical inconsistencies don’t interfere with the tension Spielberg generates from his unfriendly extraterrestrials’ siege and from the carnage’s affecting September 11 allusions (the wreckage of a downed airplane; missing people flyers lining a bridge). Yet for all the cacophonous, larger-than-life chaos, the director maintains his small-scale focus on Ray (embodied with efficient, one-note ferocity by Cruise), whose superheroic (and transformative) efforts to protect his kids no matter the cost culminates in a startling second-act scene between a harried Ray, terrified Rachel and the militant lunatic (Tim Robbins) with whom they’ve taken shelter in a dilapidated basement. Unfortunately, though, Spielberg sabotages his film with a disingenuously happy ending that reveals War of the Worlds as merely a cheap, consequence-free fairy tale, one in which any sense of mortal danger is merely a ruse orchestrated by a director who can’t help but leave his audiences with the comforting – and false – idea that everything works out in the end.