Steven Spielberg is the director who single-handedly gave birth to the concept of the summer movie 30 years ago with the release of 'Jaws'. He is also known for bringing us into contact with aliens having helmed 'Close encounters of the third kind' and 'E.T.', sci-fi classics of their genre. Tackling a newer, meaner species of intergalactic species, bent on taking over the planet and wreaking havoc in the process, seems like a natural progression then for the director, who does just that with his latest effort, 'War of the worlds', based on the popular book by H.G. Wells. There's only one problem with all of it – the movie has nothing new to say or show, and while done very well, all of its elements combined still can't prevent it from feeling a tad bit anachronistic.
In his second outing with Spielberg, Tom Cruise plays Ray, a dockworker in New York who heads home to look after his children while his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) leaves for Boston. The promise of a normal evening is soon traded with chaos when uncanny situations occur, commencing with freak streaks of lightning repeatedly hitting one spot, inexplicable storms and then finally, the appearance of hitherto deeply submerged alien crafts (colloquially referred to as tripods) that literally start zapping, in true vintage 50's B-movie fashion, everything and anything that moves. Ray, naturally protective of what he holds dearest, literally jumps, races and swims for safety along with his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son Robbie, while a destruction derby of colossal levels ensues without which no disaster movie would be complete. From the outset it is clear that Ray is a careless, irresponsible blue-collar city slicker and Cruise does a serviceable job in the lead. Stealing his thunder in nearly every scene is Dakota Fanning, no stranger to getting second billing with superstars, as Ray's daughter Rachel. Her work here is terrific and exceedingly precocious for a star her age and it shows.
The most noticeably apparent drawback of 'War of the worlds' is how many of its setups reminded me of scenes from other better movies, some of them from Spielberg's very own résumé. The emptiness in the cities and towns was reminiscent of similar sequences from '28 days later', except without the raw human depravity. The scant military retaliation and its aftermath reeked of quieter moments from 'Saving Private Ryan', with a complete rendition of a soldier unable to hear Ray talking to him over heavy artillery fire. Perhaps most inexcusable is the attempt to channel M. Night Shyamalan's parental disengagement in a crisis situation from 'Signs' into scenes where Ray tries to bridge his relationship with his children, not only because 'Signs' did it much better and more believably, but because Shyamalan has always been known to be inspired by Spielberg. While not really an unsavoury attempt, having much that makes up for the loss of overall novelty, especially in a taut scene inside a basement, it is a curse of Spielberg's success that so much is always expected of him. High time then for him to explore unchartered territories instead of the vaguely familiar and the expectant. - Faizan Rashid